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Walmart's Pico Rivera 'Plumbing Problem'

Bobbi Murray

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Protest outside Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s NYC home.

René Bobadilla had just started lunch on April 13 when he got a call from Walmart’s government relations office.

I almost choked,” he says.

Bobadilla is the city manager of Pico Rivera and the government relations rep had just informed him that the local Walmart Supercenter was shutting down within hours and possibly for six months — due to a plumbing issue.

That meant 530 workers cut at Pico Rivera’s second-largest employer and a severe budget hit to the San Gabriel Valley city of 63,000. Sales tax from the Supercenter accounts for some 10 percent of city revenues — an estimated $1.4 million a year.

The nature of the problem is a mystery.

They haven’t told us specifically — is it their main, do they have water coming out of their drain? I don’t know,” Bobadilla says.

The Pico Rivera store is one of five Walmart stores around the country suddenly closed due to vaguely defined plumbing problems. The others are in Midland, TX — where more than 400 employees got the news on a Tuesday afternoon that they no longer had a job on Wednesday — along with Livingston TX, Brandon FL and Tulsa, OK.

The United Food and Commercial Workers have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board asking that the 2,200 layoffs at the five stores be rehired. As it is, if and when the stores re-open, workers must re-apply for their former positions, with no guarantees of a job.

The employees of two of the shut-down stores — in Pico Rivera and Tulsa — have been active in organizing efforts by OUR Walmart to improve working conditions. (The OUR Walmart workers are not organizing for union recognition.) Key to their organizing is opposition to retaliation in the form of reduced hours, firings and demotions when workers speak out.

Capital & Main’s attempts to reach Walmart for comment were unsuccessful.

Evelin Cruz was a department manager for 11 years at the Pico Rivera store. She began organizing in 2011. Associates at the store went on strike in 2012 to bring attention to split-shift scheduling, part-time work and benefits issues, and conducted “countless actions and delegations,” she says.

The organizing efforts at the stores are “important not only for Walmart but for all retailers,” Cruz says. “Nobody has the guts to stand up to them.”

Cruz describes pop-up picket lines during last November’s Black Friday sale to inform shoppers of Walmart’s labor practices. “If looks could kill, the management team would have killed all of us,” she says.

She was fired, she says, when her employer accused her of purposefully withholding information about a chemical involved in a shipment of photo supplies. She has been unemployed since November, 2014.

Walmart has characterized the recent store closings as a way to better serve customers when the plumbing problems are repaired.

That is a way to do it — you make it a business decision,” says labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who wrote a landmark book on Walmart business practices.

Labor law says a company can’t retaliate against a concerted organizing activity. “This is a way to mask what you are doing. “Walmart has kept stores open in the face of local storms and bad weather, he says. “When they want to do it it’s ‘All hands on deck!’”

Lichtenstein notes that Walmart has more than 4,000 stores. Shutting down five is not a big deal. “They’re always opening 100 and shutting down 100.”

If they want to quell employee rights organizing at the more active Walmart stores, it may not hurt the corporation to close three that are not involved in workers rights organizing. Those stores may even be losing money, Lichtenstein notes.

Lichtenstein says Walmart recognizes these organizing campaigns “as a proto-union. They are willing to spend a lot of money to stop it.”

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Labor & Economy

The Most Successful Union Organizer in America Thinks Traditional Organizing Is a Lost Cause

On the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast, David Rolf of the SEIU explains why worker advocates need to move to a different model.

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David Rolf (Photo: SEIU)

If anyone has shown a keen understanding of how to unionize workers in America, it’s David Rolf.

In the 1990s, he was a key player in the Service Employees International Union winning the right to represent some 74,000 home care aides in Los Angeles—the largest union organizing campaign since the 1940s. In his present post, as president of SEIU Local 775 in Seattle, he has spearheaded growth from 1,600 to 45,000 members. In 2014, The American Prospect called Rolf “the most successful union organizer of the past 15 years.”

All of which makes Rolf’s take on the collective-bargaining system—that it is a relic, and that those who truly care about workers should stop focusing their efforts on promoting it—particularly provocative.

“I think we made a valiant . . . bet that if we put enough talent and enough resources behind traditional union organizing that we could somehow bring back the old model,” Rolf told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “It wasn’t the wrong theory to try necessarily. . . . But ultimately, when you try something over and over again and cannot achieve the results you want, it’s time to try something new.”

Instead of being sufficiently innovative, Rolf adds, most labor leaders have been “reinvesting and doubling down on our American system of enterprise-based collective bargaining since the union movement started to shrink in the early 1950s.” The result: “Through decades . . . we’ve seen unions grow weaker and weaker every year while continuing to repeat the same strategic directions.”

Today, less than 6.5% of the private-sector workforce in the United States is unionized, a steady drop from nearly 35% in 1955, 26% in 1975, and 10% in 1995.

To move forward, Rolf has plenty of ideas, including promoting worker ownership and introducing “ethical workplace” certification and labeling programs designed to appeal to socially conscious consumers.

Especially important, he believes, is to supplant firm-by-firm bargaining with a European-style paradigm in which representatives of the employees, employers, and the government set standards for wages and benefits throughout an entire industry or across a geographic area.

“The more there’s bargaining centralization,” Rolf says, “the less anti-union the culture is, the more union coverage you have in the workplace, the lower inequality is within the overall society, the lower the level of gender wage inequality is, and the more time people get for social and leisure activity.”

Another part of Rolf’s strategy has been to build advocacy organizations like the Fight for $15, which, in his words, has put forth a “bold and morally compelling demand” to elevate the pay of more than 20 million low-wage workers.

Whether a critical mass of labor leaders will ever agree with Rolf and push hard to replace the status quo is far from certain. But nobody, he says, should interpret the organizing triumphs that he and a relatively small number of others around the country have enjoyed as a sign that 20th century trade unionism can survive the 21st.

“Overall, the trend lines are not good,” Rolf says, suggesting that the current system is simply “marking time until its eventual extinction.”

“It’s not to say that you can’t find a few dozen black rhinos left in the wild somewhere,” he continues, “but that shouldn’t make us think that they’re suddenly going to take over the world.”

You can listen to my entire interview with Rolf here, along with Marty Goldensohn reporting on the state of employee stock ownership plans, and Kanyi Maqubela reflecting on why the toughest obstacle facing driverless cars is psychological, not technical.

 

The Bottom Line is a production of Capital & Main

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Study: California Economy Unhurt by Progressive Policies

A new report shows that California, with its higher minimum wage, Medicaid expansion and ambitious climate policy, has done better than 19 Republican-led states with lower taxes and fewer regulations.

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A California worker installing solar panels. (Photo: Danita Delimont/Alamy)

Reducing carbon emissions, raising low-wage workers’ incomes and increasing access to health insurance have not, as critics warned, led to job stagnation and lower GDP.


 

In a direct rebuke to anyone using the term “job-killing regulations,” a recent study shows that a group of progressive policies enacted since 2011 have had no negative impact on the California economy. If anything, the report, “California is Working: The Effects of California’s Public Policy on Jobs and the Economy since 2011,” shows that California has done better than several states that have lower taxes and fewer regulations.

The report’s author, University of California, Berkeley Labor Center researcher Ian Perry, examined 51 progressive policy measures – including environment, safety net, taxation, infrastructure and housing – that Perry coins the “California Policy Model,” or CPM. These policies include laws that provide a path to a higher minimum wage, expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act, raise taxes on corporations and promote California’s comprehensive and ambitious climate policy.

Perry chose 2011 as a starting point because that’s when Democrats captured majorities in the legislature as well as the governor’s office. Also that year, Proposition 25, which let Democrats approve a state budget with a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds requirement, went into effect. That opened the floodgates to a wave of progressive policies that have been scorned by conservative politicians, pundits and think tanks.

Perry told Capital & Main that he set out to see whether critics of California’s progressive policies were correct — that, for example, California’s higher minimum wage would increase unemployment, or whether the state’s strict regulations on carbon would send businesses to other states in droves.

To do so, Perry compared wage growth and employment growth in California with statistics from 19 Republican-controlled states. But he also had to create a legitimate control group to weight factors like California’s tech boom, which might have skewed economic results, or a Republican-controlled state’s downturn, which may not have been due to conservative policies. To combat an apples-to-avocados comparison, Perry used a “synthetic control” method to weight data from Republican states to create an alternate California (or alt-California) in which CPM had not been enacted.

Perry found that California – the real California with its CPM – enjoyed higher total employment, private sector employment and GDP than the 19 Republican states and alt-California.

The study, by design, looked at the cumulative impact of policies instead of evaluating specific policies. “Still, one policy stood out to me,” Perry said. “My study found that the expansion of Medicaid through the ACA was one of the more pro-growth policies because it led to a greater demand in health care services and a growth in health industry jobs.”

The biggest takeaway from the study, Perry said, was that policies that make up the CPM – reducing carbon emissions, improving income for low-wage workers and helping more people access health insurance – have not, as critics warned, led to negative economic effects like job stagnation and lower GDP.

“There are warnings from conservatives that [progressive policies] will slow down economic growth, but California is a big piece of evidence that the fears are unwarranted,” Perry said.

Kansas, which went all in on supply side economics under Governor Sam Brownback, showed that the converse is true, that cutting taxes can sometimes kill growth, Perry said.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Jared Bernstein, chief economist to former Vice President Joe Biden, praised the study. He said that, while it didn’t convince him that there’s a direct line between progressive laws and job growth (a relationship Perry did not set out to prove), the study did, “in tandem with tons of other research, convince me that these progressive interventions do not hurt growth.”

The Berkeley study was released as Republicans on Capitol Hill pushed a tax bill heavily weighted to tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, legislation that a majority of Americans are firmly against.

Despite the report’s generally rosy economic picture, Perry points out that some issues threaten California’s prosperity. First, progressive labor standards need to be enforced to combat rampant wage theft in California’s low-wage industries. Second, the effect of very high housing prices in much of the state could undermine some economic gains.

“High housing prices and lack of supply could force more people to live farther away from their jobs, which would increase carbon emissions and make it harder for [businesses] to attract workers,” he said.

And the possible repeal, or undermining of, the Affordable Care Act, could undo some of the economic benefits of the past seven years, Perry said. Another study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center earlier this year showed that California would have lost more than half a million jobs if the Graham-Cassidy repeal-and-replace legislation had passed.


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Sessions Announcement Throws Cannabis Industry Into the Weeds

Co-published by International Business Times
The U.S. Attorney General threw a curveball to California’s nascent marijuana industry by rescinding a tolerant federal policy known as the Cole Memo.

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Marijuana ads, West Hollywood. (Photo: Larry Buhl)

Because cannabis remains a Schedule I drug,  any financial institutions dealing with marijuana businesses risk losing accreditation and could even face money laundering charges.


Co-published by International Business Times
On January 1, customers lined up outside California dispensaries to legally buy recreational marijuana in the state for the first time. Three days later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions threw a curveball to the nascent industry which the California Legislative Analyst’s Office predicted would pull in $1 billion in taxes in its first year.

But by rescinding a 2013 policy known as the Cole Memo, which recommended that U.S. attorneys not prosecute legitimate cannabis users and businesses in states where weed is legal, Sessions is now giving those 93 attorneys latitude to prosecute as they see fit. The Cole Memo, though vague in its wording, is widely believed to have allowed the industry to flourish.

“The cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana has long been and remains a violation of federal law.” Adam Braverman, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, said in a written statement. “We will continue to utilize long-established prosecutorial priorities to carry out our mission to combat violent crime, disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations, and stem the rising tide of the drug crisis.”

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney in San Francisco issued a similar statement in an email to Capital & Main.

Sessions’ move drew fire from politicians in both parties, and U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), ripped Sessions for delivering “an extravagant holiday gift to the drug cartels.”

Rohrabacher is the co-author of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, now called Rohrabacher-Blumenauer, attached to the 2014 federal budget to prohibit the Justice Department from interfering with state medical cannabis laws. Because it’s an amendment, it must be reauthorized every year. In open defiance of Sessions, Congress voted to extend Rohrabacher-Blumenauer through stopgap spending bills twice in 2017, and it is now in effect through January 18. But Congress hasn’t settled on a long-term spending bill. If an impasse leads to a government shutdown, medical marijuana businesses will be operating in a legal gray area.

Some industry watchers think U.S. attorneys probably won’t waste their time and resources prosecuting legitimate businesses – including retail operations and growers – or their customers.

But Pamela Epstein, founder of Green Wise Consulting, a Los Angeles law firm assisting cannabis businesses, said she has received dozens of calls from panicked clients whose investors were getting cold feet.

“Sessions cut the industry off at the knees when it was starting to take off and act like a traditional business,” Epstein said. “That was just by the act of saying he was doing something. A lot of companies will be taken out due to [Sessions’] personal vendetta.”

Even before the Sessions’ announcement, there were uncertainties about how the legal marijuana industry will work in California.

The biggest sticking point is banking. Because cannabis remains a Schedule I drug and illegal at the federal level, there are heavy regulatory burdens on banks that do business with cannabis companies. Any financial institutions dealing with marijuana businesses risk losing accreditation and could even face money laundering charges.

Daniel Yi, a spokesperson for MedMen, a company managing medical marijuana dispensaries, said larger businesses like his had an easier time finding banking options. “But for a two- or three-person operation, it’s hard to get a bank to want to do business with you,” he said.

Banks willing to do business with cannabis companies charge high fees to cover compliance, which include disclosure of the weed’s journey from seed to sale. Most smaller cannabis businesses still pay their employees in cash, a dangerous practice for employees and customers.

Jason Thomas, a former deputy town marshal for Holly, Colorado, now sells real estate to cannabis companies in that state. He said some companies resort to legally questionable means of getting bank accounts. “Sometimes a company will use a parent company with a non-cannabis name to get around banking regulations,” Thomas said.

Some California state legislators understand the problems with a cash-only pot industry. In December, 2016 state treasurer John Chiang started the 16-member Cannabis Banking Working Group with representatives from law enforcement, banks, regulators and local governments to find a solution to the state and federal conflict. Late last year the group published a report proposing possible solutions to the weed industry’s banking problem, including the use of armored cars – which the businesses would pay for – to make bank deposits and pay taxes, and a state bank for businesses shut out of federal banking institutions.

There is general agreement that the only thing that would make the cannabis industry fully compliant, and allow cannabis operators and consumers to breathe easy, is decriminalization of weed at the federal level. And there’s a school of thought that suggests Sessions’ move last week, inadvertently made it a little more likely that the U.S. Congress could legalize pot.

“I think [Sessions] is going to galvanize actors in the federal government to legalize cannabis,” Yi said.


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L.A. Times Staffers Await Union Vote Tally

Thursday’s vote by Los Angeles Times editorial staffers to choose or reject unionization was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board at the paper’s downtown building and Orange County offices.

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Bobbi Murray

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Photo by Minnaert

Thursday’s first-ever union vote among editorial staff in the 136-year history of the Los Angeles Times was hailed as a landmark event by other news media observers, although it appears that the voting itself was a fairly low-key affair.

There had been a buzz of activity, along with rising tensions between management and the union effort in the weeks leading up to the daylong January 4 vote, which was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board at the downtown building and Orange County offices.

Union newsroom supporters had met with fellow journalists to discuss what the on-the-job priorities of editorial staffers might be and distilled a list of negotiation goals. There were phone calls to editorial staff to beef up union support and pro-union signs sprang up around the newsroom.

Management of the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by Tronc, sent out an anti-union eblast to its reporters touting the newspaper’s history and implying that workplace flexibility would be threatened by a collective bargaining structure, and that the union couldn’t guarantee pay hikes or protections against layoffs. It was not the first such email and matched the messaging in management-distributed flyers.

Despite that, one Times writer, speaking on condition of anonymity, described voting day in the Times Spring Street headquarters in anti-climactic terms.

“There was no line, really. I think I heard that at 10 o’clock on the dot [when polls opened] there was a bit of a line. It took 10 seconds to vote. You just marked an X, Yes or No, behind the curtain then dropped your ballot in the box.”

Given that slightly over 350 staffers are in the bargaining unit and eligible to vote in two locations (and some by mail-in ballot), there was little potential for a stampede. Observers included a National Labor Relations Board officer, a NewsGuild-CWA union agent and another representing management.

Thursday evening, pro-union staffers who had been involved in the organizing retreated after work to Birds & Bees, a nearby watering hole, no doubt to relax a little after the past months fight and discuss next steps — outside media were not invited.

The drama now will lie in awaiting the results, not due until the mail-in ballots are counted and the NLRB announces the results on January 19.

There had been some skepticism in the newsroom, the Times staffer said, but “the opposition hadn’t organized. So, it’s tempting to think, Oh well, it’s going to be overwhelming [for the union], but I just don’t know. I can’t predict — I wouldn’t assume it’s a done deal.”


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L.A. Times: Will Union Vote Conk Tronc?

Today, over 350 Los Angeles Times reporters and editorial staff will vote on whether to allow NewsGuild CWA to represent them at the famously anti-union company.

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Bobbi Murray

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Editorial staffers say they have been driven to unionize by a management that has undermined both working and journalistic standards.


Co-published by The American Prospect

Los Angeles Times readers who have been unaware of the paper’s endless management turmoil and policy changes can always view the damage in its print edition. Thinner news sections, a dwindling number of bylines and the wrap-around advertising that disguises the front-page all hint at the ongoing upheaval at the top.

Front-line reporters who bear the brunt of the turmoil have organized a union drive in response. As the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee announced in an October 24th 2017 letter signed by 44 editorial staff: “We wanted to stem the flight of talent and halt the steady erosion of pay and benefits.”

It’s the first time in the famously anti-union paper’s history that editorial staff members have taken such a step — driven, they say, by a management that has undermined both working and journalistic standards. (The Times’ press operators are represented by the Teamsters union.)

Today, over 350 Los Angeles Times reporters and editorial staff will vote on whether to allow NewsGuild CWA to represent them. About 70 percent of the newsroom signed union authorization cards, organizers say. Voting takes place at the Times‘ downtown headquarters and at its Orange County offices, with observers in place; some remote employees will submit mail-in ballots. The National Labor Relations Board will release the results January 19.

Organizers want a unified voice to formally set work standards so Tronc can’t make unilateral changes to employment conditions — such as the recent policy shift that eliminated accrued vacation days.

“What really kicked this off was, as we’re dealing with this tumult at the executive levels, the reporters are still doing the work,” said Carolina Miranda, who has seen management change at least three times in the three and a half years she has been at the paper.

One pivotal moment came recently when it became public that Michael W. Ferro, the technology entrepreneur and company chairman who changed the Tribune name to Tronc (Tribune online content), flies on a private plane that cost Tronc $4.6 million–$8,500 an hour– in seven months to sublease. The plane is subleased from a Ferro-owned company, Merrick Ventures.

“That tipped wavering [employees] toward the union,” said one L.A. Times journalist who, like most staffers interviewed by Capital & Main, spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to another Times staffer, one incident that roiled editorial staff—and much of the industry–was management’s behavior during a recent stand-off with the Walt Disney Company. Disney refused to provide advance copies or screenings of films to the L.A. Times because of the paper’s two-part series about the cozy business relationship between the city of Anaheim and Disneyland that has garnered the theme park more than $1 billion in “subsidies, incentives, rebates and protections from future taxes.” Disney found the stories unfair.

An L.A. Times staffer cited management’s tepid response as a turning point. National critics associations condemned the ban and threatened to disqualify Disney films from awards consideration. D’Vorkin met with Disney for what it called “productive discussions,” although the Times offered no public defense for the reporting that had sparked Disney’s ire.

Part of the paper and website’s chaos is evidenced in the kinds of cuts and changes in workplace conditions that have become common in newsrooms around the country as publishers grapple with changing technological models and a shifting economic landscape. In Southern California, the LA Weekly’s new owner recently eliminated all but four of 13 editorial staff members; former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano resigned after refusing to cut staff.

“We’re the eyes and ears of the community,” Carolina Miranda said of the pressure to keep reporter staffing levels low. “You need someone writing about the water. You need someone writing about electeds, sitting in interminable City Hall and CalTrans meetings. That’s where the news comes from. It’s important to protect our role in that ecosystem.”

L.A. Times employees describe several more clear turning points in a years-long, accelerating momentum toward unionization. In 2016 the Chicago-based Tribune company, which had acquired the paper in 2000, announced its name change to Tronc, along with its mission as a “content curation and monetization company.”

In August 2017 Tronc fired publisher and editor Davan Maharaj. Newsroom staff hadn’t been that happy about Maharaj’s management style, given his predilection for encumbering and delaying some of the Times‘ best reporting. The staff organized against him after “fabulous journalists, one after the other, kept leaving,” one union supporter said.

The organizers had high hopes that a new editor would promote quality journalism. Then Tronc brought in Ross Levinsohn, formerly an interim chief executive at Yahoo, as chief executive publisher, and former Forbes editor Lewis D’Vorkin, as editor.

The emphasis, Levinsohn told the New York Times, would not be on investing in reporting staff but to expand the L.A. Times on “all platforms.” New management pushed for budget cuts.

Organizers are looking to create a unified voice to set work standards and formally codify them so Tronc can’t make unilateral changes to employment conditions — such as the recent policy shift that eliminated accrued vacation days. They also hope to stabilize the pay structure with a tiered approach that gradually increases pay for new hires as well as to improve health benefits and parental leave policies.

Union contracts also frequently include grievance processes that protect journalists’ freedom to report and write by assuring that terminations are for just cause rather than “at will” whims.

“We hope it will unify the newsroom behind quality journalism instead of watching one person after the other leave,” said one staffer who signed on to the October 2017 letter. The publications that will survive have invested in maintaining quality, she added, citing the Washington Post and New York Times. (Editorial staff from both publications are part of the NewsGuild’s 25,000 nationwide members.)

NewsGuild organizers describe push-back from L.A. Times management as “primitive stuff.”

The Los Angeles Times responded to a request for comment about the union drive via email with a statement from L.A. Times CEO and publisher Levinsohn. “For 136 years, the Los Angeles Times has served the community of Los Angeles and the world with dynamic, important and Pulitzer Prize winning journalism. It is the core foundation of our brand. Whether our newsroom unionizes or not, we will remain committed to ensuring the L.A. Times is a leading source for news and information across all media touchpoints.”

Felix Gutierrez, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who writes about media and racial, ethnic and gender groups, has followed the L.A. Times development for decades as the paper, he said, focused on expanding toward white suburbs and “bypassing other communities. If they had adapted a demographic imperative as aggressively as they grasped the technological, they could be in a different place right now.

“The reporters are closer to what’s happening in the communities than the higher-ups. They should listen to them. I don’t know if they’ll do that without a union.”


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Serfing USA: New ‘Bracero’ Bill Could Cut Agriculture Workers’ Rights and Wages

A new Congressional bill would reduce a broad range of agriculture workers to the status of “guest workers.” California’s dairy owners are ecstatic. Co-published by International Business Times.

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Luis Melchor photo by Gabriel Thompson

The AG Act would prevent the government from inspecting worksites without first checking in with the employer, transfers all travel and housing costs to employees and allows employers to pay workers at a lower wage scale.


Co-published by International Business Times

On a cool December afternoon, Luis Alberto Echeverria Melchor approached a dusty corral on the western outskirts of Turlock, a city in California’s Central Valley. Several young cows ambled over to greet him. “They are very intelligent,” he said, reaching out to stroke the face of an animal. “Sensitive, too.” Melchor should know. The 38 year old has spent half his life milking and feeding the cows of Stanislaus County, a mostly rural region whose landscapes are dominated by sprawling dairy farms that produced half a billion gallons of milk in 2016 worth more than $600 million.

During the 20-minute drive south from Melchor’s Modesto apartment, we had passed more than a dozen dairies, including several where he had once worked. From the passenger’s seat, Melchor, whose soft oval face is framed by a neatly trimmed beard, narrated the experiences in a sort of CliffsNotes of labor abuses: The boss who stiffed him a week’s pay; the boss who refused to give breaks; the boss who yelled too much. But it was this Turlock dairy that Melchor remembered best, for it was here that he finally decided to complain about labor abuses, and those complaints would eventually result in his deportation to Mexico.

He had worked at the dairy for eight months when, in March of 2008, a cow kicked him in the chest. He didn’t remember the kick, only that he woke up staring at the barn’s ceiling while a coworker fanned his face with a shirt. His chest throbbed and he was unable to speak above a whisper. Melchor alleged that the dairy owner, Joe Sallaberry, took a glance at him and told Melchor to go back to his trailer, located on the property, and rest. “You’ll be fine,” Sallaberry said. (Sallaberry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

CRLA Attorney: “We’ve had workers who have been smashed by cows. The response from employers is often, ‘Walk it off.’ Many people won’t complain, because they fear retaliation.”

Melchor didn’t feel fine. His wife drove him to the hospital, where he said he learned that his rib was fractured. That night, he handed Sallaberry a doctor’s note that stated he couldn’t work. The next day, Sallaberry fired him. “I only had three days to move out,” Melchor recalled. On the third day, as he struggled to pack his things—the injury made even the slightest upper-body movement painful—two officers from the Sheriff’s Department drove up and reminded him that he needed to vacate by sundown.

Stories like Melchor’s are familiar to Esmeralda Zendejas, an attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) who has represented numerous dairy workers over the years. She told me that wage theft is routine in the dairy industry, and that employer-provided housing, often onsite, tends to be less than optimal. There can be serious safety hazards for children, like open manure lagoons, and injuries are common. “We’ve had workers who have been smashed by cows,” she said. “The response from employers is often, ‘Walk it off.’ Many people won’t complain, because they fear retaliation.”

Yet if the dairy industry gets its way, the workforce they rely upon will soon become even more vulnerable to exploitation. This fall, Republican representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia introduced the Agricultural Guestworker Act, or AG Act, which was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee in October. The proposal would replace the H-2A guestworker program, which currently only covers farmworkers, to include dairy workers and meat and poultry processors, while also gutting many of the existing worker protections.

Guest workers are even less likely than undocumented immigrants to lodge complaints about wage theft or dangerous workplaces, because their employers can quickly have them deported and replaced. Added to that power imbalance is the problem of debt. Saket Soni is the head of the National Guestworker Alliance, which in recent years has helped dozens of guest workers escape from labor camps patrolled by armed guards. He told me that many guest workers are charged illegal fees by labor brokers in their home countries, and so arrive in the U.S. “in virtual, and sometimes literal, debt peonage.” Such workers, he said, “are afraid of being deported into debt, and so can’t blow the whistle on unsafe and abusive conditions.”

Critics often liken the current guest worker system to the Bracero Program, which brought in Mexicans from 1942 to 1964, and was notorious for labor abuses and lax oversight. But Adrienne DerVartanian of Farmworker Justice, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization, told me that there “are even fewer protection in Goodlatte’s bill than in the original Bracero program.” The AG Act, which would create a new visa, the H-2C, prevents the government from inspecting worksites without first checking in with the employer, transfers all travel and housing costs to employees, has no provisions to outlaw labor recruitment fees and allows employers to pay workers at a lower wage scale. It also allows companies to prevent their workers from suing, instead forcing them into mandatory arbitration—an arbitration for which the guest workers have to shoulder half the costs. (Even a successful wage theft case would be partly paid for by the employee who was owed money.)

Perhaps most crucially, the new program would be overseen by the Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Labor. When Goodlatte announced the AG Act, he described the USDA as “an agency that clearly understands the unique needs of America’s farm and ranch operations.” The agency is certainly more closely aligned with the needs of farm operators than is the DOL. What it isn’t is an agency that enforces labor laws. In fact, the USDA can be outright indifferent to worker safety. Several years ago, the USDA tried to increase the already dizzying line speeds at poultry plants from 140 to 175 birds a minute, a move that was supported by the National Chicken Council. Investigations by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control, have found that carpal tunnel syndrome is widespread among poultry workers. But the USDA’s speedup promised to save poultry companies $256 million a year, and the agency only caved when faced with sustained public outcry from groups that included Oxfam America and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

All of which helps explain why the AG Act is being championed by the American Dairy Coalition and the National Milk Producers Federation, and why donors to Goodlatte this year included California Dairies, Inc., a 400-member cooperative that produces 43 percent of the state’s milk. “You would create a temporary workforce with no ability to become legal immigrants, who are completely dependent on their employers, and who have extremely minimal protections,” DerVartanian of Farmworker Justice told me. “The lack of respect it shows towards hard-working people is really stunning.”

Dairy Worker: “[Bosses] look at a worker as a machine. They don’t want the worker to get sick or injured, or they’ll get rid of you and look for someone else.”

She said that the prospects of AG Act weren’t clear, but that it represented what had been “on the agribusiness wish list for a long time,” and what the industry now hoped to push through in the Trump administration. Indeed, the breadth of support for the proposal is impressive. The bill is backed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the North American Meat Institute, the California Strawberry Commission and dozens of other food-related groups, along with the Cato Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

During our tour of local dairy farms, Melchor told me that he had heard a supervisor talk about dairy owners hoping to some day bring workers directly from Mexico. He believed the reason was simple: abusive bosses had a hard time finding enough willing workers. “They look at a worker as a machine,” he said. “They don’t want the worker to get sick or injured, or they’ll get rid of you and look for someone else. You are an instrument.” He said that if people are faced with only two options—stay quiet on the job or be deported to Mexico—many will stay and endure all manner of labor abuses.

To illustrate how far some bosses will go, he referred to his own case. During his hospital visit, a nurse had passed along the CRLA number. Melchor called and told his story to Esmeralda Zendejas, who filed a case in 2010 against Joe Sallaberry for wrongful termination and back wages. The following year, they met for a deposition in Stockton. After the deposition had begun, Sallabery’s lawyer, Anthony Raimondo, apologized and said that he had to take an urgent phone call. He returned several minutes later.

After the deposition, Melchor stopped to get gas before driving home. As he was leaving the station, two unmarked vehicles pulled him over, lights flashing. He was handcuffed and driven to Bakersfield, where he was put on a flight to San Diego and bused across the border. “Listen, I’ve been deported and I’m in Tijuana,” he told Zendejas over the phone. “I don’t know what happened.”

Zendejas eventually pieced it together: Raimondo, who frequently represents dairy workers, had tipped off a contact at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This was a tactic that he would employ numerous times against dairy workers who filed suits against his clients; as Raimondo admitted in an email to the Legal Services Corporation, “The attorneys find out when their clients are already gone.”

Raimondo initially told me by email that he had not wanted Melchor deported, but did later admit that he had told ICE that Melchor would be at the deposition.

He also wrote that shortly before the deposition, Sallaberry claimed that Melchor, then an undocumented immigrant using the last name “Masedo,” had attempted to murder Sallaberry. In a court document, Sallaberry said that, around midnight on April 3, 2011, he discovered “Masedo” outside his house with another man. Both fled, Sallaberry said, but not before one of them allegedly fired a bullet that nearly struck Sallaberry. A judge later issued a temporary restraining order against Masedo/Melchor based on Sallaberry’s testimony, and set a future date for a hearing in which both sides could present their sides. By the time of the hearing, Melchor was in Mexico.

Melchor laughed when I asked him about the allegations, calling them “complete lies.” (Neither “Masedo” nor “Melchor” was listed as a suspect in the police report of the incident.)

After several months of failed attempts, Melchor was able to crawl through a tunnel than ran along the border and return to California. As Raimondo had hoped, CRLA had been forced to settle the case in Melchor’s absence, but Zendejas began a U visa application for her client, alleging that he had been intimidated while trying to assert his legal rights. He was granted the U visa in October 2016 and can now legally work in the country. He left a dairy job several months ago, after experiencing what were likely the early signs of carpal tunnel, and now is employed by a tile fabrication company in Stockton.

As for Raimondo, CRLA and the non-profit Legal Aid at Work filed a federal lawsuit against him in 2013, arguing that as a representative of the employer, he had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by retaliating against another dairy worker named José Arias. Last June, the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals reversed an earlier decision and ruled against Raimondo, finding that the act applied not only to the employer but the employer’s representatives as well. To protect his right to continue to use ICE to quash labor disputes, Raimondo has retained a powerhouse appellate firm, Horvitz & Levy, which recently petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Whether Raimondo is able to gain a Supreme Court audience, the dairy industry will continue to seek new sources of pliant labor. On his website, Raimondo describes himself as the “primary labor and employment resource for California’s Western United Dairymen,” a trade association based in Modesto. Anja Raudabaugh, the group’s CEO, recently told a reporter with the investigative website FairWarning that her members considered Raimondo “something of a hero” for his work. She emailed me that her organization “considers having the AG Act pass out of committee a major step forward” and that it looks forward to working with House members “as legislation now moves to the floor for a vote.” It is perhaps no surprise that the group, whose members produce 70 percent of California’s milk, are excited by the AG Act. It is an act, after all, that has no protections against retaliation and that shifts labor enforcement to an agency that has never enforced labor laws. It is an act that Raimondo himself could have written.


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Report: Cash Bail System Hurts Poor and Communities of Color in L.A.

A UCLA report says the state’s money bail system takes “tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families and communities.”

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(Photo detail by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“Many people don’t even have $100 in the bank, so paying 10 percent to a bond agent means that money won’t be going toward rent or food.”


In advance of a legislative battle over reforming California’s cash bail system, a new report shines light on which Los Angeles communities pay the most bail and by how much. The Price for Freedom, published by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, analyzed arrest data from 2012 through 2016. The authors concluded that the money bail system takes a “multi-billion dollar toll that demands tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families and communities.”

Using the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s misdemeanor and felony bail schedules, researchers discovered that bail set for more than 374,000 people arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for misdemeanors and felonies over that five-year period was $19.4 billion.

Bail agents typically charge seven to 10 percent of the total bail; money going to bail bondsmen, whether upfront or through installments, is nonrefundable, even if defendants are found not guilty or have their charges dropped by the prosecutor.

The Bunche Center study also found that the cash bail system disproportionately affects lower income Angelenos and communities of color. During the period covered by the study, black Angelenos paid bond agents $40.7 million in non-refundable fees — 21 percent of total fees paid to bond agents in a population that represents only nine percent of the population. Latinos paid just over $92 million, and whites just under $38 million over the same period. Figures for Asian Americans were unavailable to researchers.

The Bunche Center study is the first comprehensive look into the size and impact of the bail system in the city of Los Angeles. Researchers plan to release a similar report for Los Angeles County in 2018, saying that the numbers they compiled should show lawmakers what’s at stake in the escalating debate over cash bail reform.

Comprehensive legislation to eliminate California’s bail system failed in the Legislature this year. Twin bills, Senate Bill 10 authored by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), and Assembly Bill 42, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), would throw out the California bail schedules and mandate counties to conduct pretrial assessments to determine whether a defendant poses a safety threat to the community or a flight risk. The bills would also mandate counties to develop plans to ensure low-risk defendants show up for their court dates. Bonta and Hertzberg have vowed to bring back bail reform legislation early in 2018. And their efforts have the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has said “inequities exist” in the system, and of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who cited the state’s bail system as “unsafe and unfair,” and created a working group to recommend changes.

UCLA Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, one of the authors of The Price of Freedom, told Capital & Main that her study showed 70 percent of the bail amount levied went unpaid, and as a result 223,366 people remained behind bars until their arraignment.

“Many of these people don’t even have $100 in the bank, so paying 10 percent to a bond agent means that money won’t be going toward rent or food. If the breadwinner stays behind bars, the family suffers from lack of income.”

And it is most often female family members who, when they are able, engage bail agents. A 2015 study led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that incarceration takes a toll on all family members through debt, mental and physical ailments, and severed family ties.

For Isaac Bryan, a graduate researcher in the UCLA Department of Public Policy and a co-author of The Price of Freedom, the issue of cash bail is personal. Eight months ago he received a call from a bond agent saying that a family member had  been arrested for alleged property crime and drug possession. The bail was set at $25,000, and would he be able to cover it? As a struggling student, Bryan didn’t have the 10 percent upfront fee.

Supporters of cash bail say it ensures defendants will show up to court. If they fail to appear, they forfeit their bail money. Critics answer that only works when an arrestee puts up the entire bail amount. If they pay a bail agent, they lose their down payment regardless of whether they show up. The agent is on the hook for the rest of the bail.

Bail reform advocates also point to a 2017 report, Selling Off Our Freedom, published by the ACLU and the nonprofit Color of Change, which showed that much of the money collected by bail agents goes to big underwriters, including Japan-based Tokio Marine and Toronto-based Fairfax Financial, and that insurers offload most of the risk to bond agents.

Efforts to reform the cash bail system have met strong resistance from law enforcement, prosecutors and, not surprisingly, the bail industry, whose representatives say that eliminating cash bail would pose considerable harm to the public.

“Bail bond is of no expense to the taxpayer,” said Zeke Unger, owner of Lil’ Zeke’s Bail Bonds in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. “But if you let defendants out, not only do they have no motivation to go to court, you’ll have to invest in manpower to keep track of them while they’re out.”

Cash-bail advocates also point out that agents help defendants, who otherwise could not afford to do so, exercise their constitutional right to bail. But the question reformers ask, and what’s at the heart of the reform debate is: Why should freedom be determined by a person’s bank account?

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior campaign strategist for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice and a contributor to both Selling Off Our Freedom and The Price for Freedom reports, said that cash bail is supposed to make sure people return to court, but because of the high bail, in many cases, “it’s a way of keeping people in jail. Bail is not supposed to be a punishment. Right now the bail system is wealth-based detention.”

“We know that people of color are over-policed and over-represented in jails,” she added. “These reports show one more piece of the scale of economic drain of the criminal justice system on those communities.”

Across the U.S., states and courts are starting to rethink their cash bail systems. Earlier this year, New Jersey implemented an overhaul in its bail structure, and New Mexico is deciding how to address a voter-backed bail reform measure. In July, an Illinois judge ordered the reform of the bail system in Cook County, which includes Chicago. Now defendants who cannot pay bail and pose no flight risk or danger to the public do not remain behind bars before trial.

At the federal level, Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill to encourage states to reform the practice of using money bail as a condition of pretrial release in criminal cases.

Supporters of cash bail may see the reform writing on the wall, at least in California. Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, told Capital & Main that, although his organization will continue lobbying to fight the abolition of cash bail in Sacramento, it might acquiesce to some reforms.

“Bail is set way too high in California right now, and without the bail industry hardly anyone in the state would get out,” Clayton said. “Even bail on misdemeanors is higher than for felonies in Colorado. This market imbalance needs to be corrected and doing so wouldn’t have a big impact on us.”

Bail in California is set by a schedule for each crime, but varies county by county, though judges have the discretion to alter the bail amount. The Selling Off Our Freedom report found that bail amounts as late as the 1980s were much lower than today, and many people arrested for felonies were released without paying bail. That report also showed that, nationally, between 1990 and 2009, the share of arrestees required to post money bail grew from 37 to 61 percent, and the share of releases depending on bail bond companies doubled in that same period. The report said bail bondsmen and the insurance industry used high crime rates to bolster their argument for laws requiring bail, and lawmakers bought that argument.

Clayton added that sensible reforms could simply do away with bail for minor crimes that don’t present a public danger, like loitering, which often impact homeless and low-income people. “We shouldn’t detain a person who can’t make bail for longer than [what] the actual sentence might be. A 60-day sentence on a fine-eligible offense doesn’t make any sense.”


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TV Legend Norman Lear: Maximizing Shareholder Value Is the ‘Central Disease of Our Time’

In a special edition of The Bottom Line podcast, the hit sitcom creator zeroes in on a topic that has long interested him: business and its connection to society.

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Rick Wartzman photo by Joanne Kim

Through hit sitcoms such as All in the Family, Good Times and Maude, Norman Lear has taken on all kinds of contentious topics during his legendary television career: civil rights, women’s rights, the Vietnam War and more.

But as it turns out, the 95 year old has long had his eye on another issue with huge societal implications: the way that many businesses push to rake in ever bigger financial returns—often in the short term—with little regard for anything else.

Norman Lear

“This is the greatest fallacy I think I know,” Lear told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “When nothing in nature suggests anything can grow forever, the American corporation is dedicated to a profit statement this quarter larger than the last. . . . Even as I repeat it, it sounds just ruinous.”

Of course, this relentless pursuit of profit stems in large measure from the fact that, over the past 30 years, companies have embraced an ethos of “maximizing shareholder value.” Says Lear: “I think of it as the central disease of our time.”

Lear became directly involved in promoting a cure when he co-founded the Business Enterprise Trust, which during the 1990s recognized companies that tried to solve social problems as a part of their core business strategy. The program was very much in the spirit of the Shared Value Initiative launched by Harvard’s Michael Porter and Mark Kramer—only Lear’s effort came some 20 years earlier.

One corporation that has consistently impressed Lear is Starbucks. It’s “a company,” he says, “that thinks about its employees a great deal.”

But Lear makes clear that this is the exception. Most companies have kept wages flat and gutted worker benefits over time, leaving many Americans anxious and angry. Indeed, analysts believe that one reason Donald Trump won the White House was that he was able to tap into these feelings among the white working class—a group known as the “Archie Bunker vote” in a nod to Lear’s irascible blue-collar lead character in All in the Family.

Yet Lear says he actually isn’t sure whom Archie would have cast his ballot for—Trump or Hillary Clinton. “Either way is possible,” he says. Getting inside Archie’s head, he adds, “would take 11 scripts leading up to the vote, and I haven’t thought that through.”

As for the business he’s in, Lear—who serves as chairman of Act III Communications, a multimedia holding company—stresses that entertainment can have a positive social impact.

He’s excited about a pilot that he’s doing for NBC, Guess Who Died, which will look at the lives of the elderly—a demographic that, in Lear’s words, has “not been represented ever on television in any way that reflects their numbers and importance in our culture.” He also points to the current reboot of his 1970s show One Day at a Time, which last season grappled with a teenage girl coming out as a lesbian to her single mother and grandmother.

“The lack of acceptance for people who are very different from you . . . this show will help a conversation about it,” says Lear, who was one of those celebrated this year at the Kennedy Center Honors for his lifetime achievement in the arts—set to be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26. “And there is no way conversation doesn’t aid in the long run.”

You can listen to my entire interview with Lear here:

The Bottom Line is a production of Capital & Main

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How a Reporter Got a Corker of a Scoop About the GOP’s Tax Bill

At first David Sirota thought there was no hidden story behind the Republican tax bill. Then a tax lawyer called — it turned out there was plenty to reveal, thanks to the last-minute addition of a special loophole.

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Bill Raden

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Photo: U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN)

Senator Corker’s defense was, “I didn’t know about the provision because I didn’t read the bill that I’m voting for.”


As the House and Senate moved toward approving the final version of the GOP tax bill, the International Business Times (IBT) revealed in an explosive story Friday that a loophole slipped into the bill in the final minutes will directly enrich President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as wealthy senators and key members of Congress, including the provision’s writers.

Controversy swirled around the timing of the measure and the fact that deficit hawk Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee abruptly switched his vote in favor of the bill, whose tax cuts the Congressional Budget Office estimated will add $1.4 trillion to the deficit by 2027. Corker had been the lone Republican holdout in the Senate and had previously voted with Democrats against the bill. He has millions of dollars invested in real estate-related limited liability companies (LLCs) that could see a $1.1 million payday from the loophole. David Sirota’s IBT reporting quickly went viral as Corker’s apparent cushy accommodation was splashed across social media under the hashtag #CorkerKickback.

Capital & Main spoke to Sirota for a blow-by-blow account of the developing story, its implications and its consequences.

IBT had been closely following the debate over how the tax measure would treat income passed through a tax shelter known as an LLC, a “pass-through” tax entity because profits pass through to its owners who report them on their personal tax returns. The Senate version had limited tax cuts to pass through LLCs that actually employ people — the “job creators.” The House version has been far broader.

“We took a look at the key tax writers on committees that oversaw the bill as well as leadership,” Sirota said. “And we got a list of their real estate-related LLCs, and a day before the final bill came out, we put together this story about who could benefit. We found that between the conference committee, the Ways and Means Committee, the Finance Committee and the two leaders of the House and Senate, there were 13 members of Congress who owned and were earning income from real estate or from real estate-related LLCs. And depending on whether the final tax bill adopts the House version or the Senate version, they would stand to make a lot of money.”

IBT reported that the members of Congress — including House Speaker Paul Ryan — have between $36 million and $163 million invested in real estate-related LLCs. Between $2.6 million and $16 million in “pass through” income from those investments would benefit from the new provision.

Which version of the pass through would end up in the final tax bill would be determined by the joint House and Senate conference committee. At 5:30 p.m. on Friday, the committee released a final version that appeared to follow the Senate approach, the more rational version, according to tax experts Sirota spoke to.

“At 5:45 we were sort of like, ‘Okay, I don’t think there’s much to really write,’” Sirota said. “‘It looks like they kind of got it out.’ But I said, ‘I’ll talk to a couple of tax lawyers who have been following this.’ And what do you know? One of them comes back to me at 6:15 and is like, ‘You know, they added this one extra line that’s not in either of the bills. It talks about depreciable assets. This is the loophole.’ He said something along the lines of, ‘It’s narrow enough that it shows intent for a specific kind of investment vehicle.’”

Senator “John Cornyn on his Twitter feed is promoting a lobbyist’s talking points to defend this bill.”

The original House tax cut on pass-throughs, Sirota explained, was broad enough to argue that it was merely an ideological, across-the-board tax cut rather than something that picked specific winners and losers. But the additional line was included with one intent in mind. That line carved out a particular tax windfall for owners of rental-income generators like apartment buildings or commercial office complexes, depreciable property with few or no employees.

“That’s when we realized this is an absolutely enormous story,” Sirota said.

The real estate-specific windfall immediately raised the question of whether the LLC pass-through had been part of a deal aimed at influencing Corker to switch. When asked to comment on the pass-through for a followup story, Corker didn’t seem to be familiar with it, Sirota said.

“He called it ‘ridiculous,’” Sirota said. “But then he called back — he must have talked to somebody — and he said, ‘You know, I’m not sure I want to criticize it that way. You know, I need more information. I haven’t really read it. I’ve only read a summary of the bill. I haven’t read the bill.’ Which is, of course, another story: You’re the key vote on a $1.5 trillion [deficit] bill, and you’re announcing your support for it, admitting that you didn’t even read it. So your defense is, ‘I didn’t know about the provision because I didn’t read the bill that I’m voting for.’ That became another sort of huge story about how [Republicans] are rushing the bill through without even the pivotal vote having read it.”

What followed Sirota’s story was a firestorm of public outrage on social media. Under mounting pressure, Corker wrote a letter to Utah Republican Orin Hatch, the head of the Senate’s tax-writing committee, supporting the narrative that he didn’t know anything about the pass-through by asking for clarification of the provision, where it came from and how it got in the bill. To take the heat off Corker, Hatch replied on Monday, insisting that he had authored the loophole. Hatch added that Corker and his staff never contacted the tax-writing committee about the bill, in effect publicly admitting that a key swing vote on the tax bill wasn’t even communicating with the staff or the members of the panel writing it.

However, the Hatch alibi could not withstand new reporting that revealed Corker’s chief of staff, Todd Womack, had been investing heavily in a real estate LLC in the run-up to the bill and also stood to profit from the provision. Worse, Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, in a Sunday appearance on ABC’s This Week, admitted that the decision to include the pass-through came from an effort to “cobble together the votes we need to get this bill passed.” With Cornyn suddenly under attack himself, his office aggressively tried to backpedal.

“They were upset that anybody viewed it that way,” Sirota noted, “but you can read the transcript. It was very clear that’s exactly what he said. It’s incredible: Cornyn is now defending the provision on his Twitter feed — I swear to god, you cannot make this up — by sending out an article written by a bank lobbyist who is lobbying on this provision. So John Cornyn on his Twitter feed is promoting a lobbyist’s talking points to defend this bill.”

But Sirota noted that the neither self-enrichment nor massive, deficit-hiking tax giveaways to corporations and the richest Americans are new. Republicans have been redistributing the country’s wealth upwards since the days of Ronald Reagan. What actually is precedent-setting about this tax bill, he said, is how explicit it is.

“There’s no pretense in this bill,” Sirota said. “There was a thing the Republicans put out in their summary when the bill came out. I tweeted out the graphic. It was sort of in a section about trying to prevent people from using their LLCs to put their wage income into their LLCs. They called it ‘safeguards’ — and I’m paraphrasing here — ‘We have put safeguards in to make sure that the business income taxes not go to wage earners.’ They are very crystal-clear that this is a tax bill not for workers. This is a tax bill for corporations and business owners. That is the ideology. They’re actually open about that. They want the public to know.”


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Under the Radar: Hospitality Workers Battle Sexual Harassment Daily

While the sexual harassment stories of high-profile women capture headlines in the mainstream media, the everyday abuse suffered by low-wage workers in the service industry has largely gone unnoticed.

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Judith Lewis Mernit

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According to one survey, 58 percent of housekeepers reported being sexually harassed by hotel guests, and 49 percent said that guests have exposed their genitals to them.


The man came in for dinner at the Hyatt Regency’s Tides restaurant on a Monday, the first day of his industry’s gathering nearby at the Long Beach Convention Center. Almost right away he took a discomfiting interest in the female employees, and one in particular — a busser and server named Nerexda (pronounced “Nereyda”) Soto. At first he insisted that no one else wait on him. Then he began making repeated requests — for condiments that didn’t go with any of his food, dressings he didn’t need — to lure Soto back to his table. He started asking personal questions: Does her husband make her happy? What was her sex life like? What was she doing when she got off work?

Soto says she tried to avoid him, even as he came in the next day and the next. But it was hard. When he demanded her attention, she worried that saying no risked her job. “I was new,” she says. “I thought they’d see me as a problematic employee and fire me.”

The man came in for five days straight, staying a little longer every time, Soto remembers. On the last day, he arrived at the start of her shift, stayed until the restaurant was about to close, and confronted her when she brought the check. “He gave me a slip of paper and his room key,” she says. “He said, ‘I bet you look really good outside of your uniform. Why don’t you come up and show me?’”

Soto felt “small and dirty,” she says, and, worse, responsible. “I wondered what I did that made him think he could tell me that,” she says. She worried she’d enabled him. As she watched the man head up to his room, “all I could think was that my co-workers who are housekeepers are now going to have to deal with this guy.” And those women would be working on his floor alone.

While the sexual harassment stories of high-profile women capture headlines in the mainstream media, the everyday abuse suffered by low-wage workers in the service industry has largely gone unnoticed, says Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There is a heavy power dynamic that takes place in these male-dominated institutions,” he says, “where women are still not supported or believed.”

“If Gwyneth Paltrow couldn’t complain what do you want from a poor, limited-English-speaking housekeeper?”

That power dynamic may have been partly to blame when an ordinance that might have protected hotel workers recently failed in the Long Beach City Council. “One of the objections we heard [from the city council] is that there weren’t enough complaints [to spur action],” says Naida Tushnet, a former educator turned activist, and part of a Long Beach coalition that lobbies on behalf of hotel-worker rights. “But if Gwyneth Paltrow couldn’t complain, what do you want from a poor, limited-English-speaking housekeeper?”

Hotel workers are, at least on paper, protected from sexual harassment by managers or co-workers. Both Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, in California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), prohibit employers from causing a workplace to turn hostile due to discrimination based on sex. But unless they commit actual crimes, guests and customers are another matter. “Clearly Title VII and FEHA do not cover sexual harassment by clients,” says Jennifer Drobac, an Indiana University law professor who specializes in sexual harassment law. To qualify as criminal under state and federal law, sexual harassment has to be “severe and pervasive,” Drobac explains. In Soto’s case, “The guy was a jerk and he made rude comments. He was inappropriate.” But he wasn’t outside the law.

Only if Soto had told her manager would she have triggered the law. And it wouldn’t be the customer at fault, but the hotel itself. “If she’d said, ‘Look, this guy is making my job harder, he’s keeping me at his table longer, he’s really creepy,’ then the employer could be held liable under Title VII and FEHA for failing to create a safe work environment.”

“They are single mothers. Some of them don’t speak English. They’re alone on these floors. If they yell, who’s going to listen?”

“At that point,” Drobac says, “the employer has to go to the guy and say ‘Look, my server just brought me your key card. When do you want me in your room?’”

It wasn’t just fear that kept Soto from reporting the incident at the time, she says. She literally didn’t have the words to identify what had happened to her until a few months later, when a co-worker handed her a survey. According to Soto, the hotel’s union, UNITE-HERE Local 11, “was trying to grasp how bad the problem of sexual harassment was.” (Disclosure: The union is a financial supporter of this website.) While writing up her story in the survey, it struck her that her experience belonged to a category — one that was common enough to be almost universal, but had been neglected in hotel worker and server training. “It’s so obvious,” she says. “How is it that I’ve never been trained on how to handle sexual harassment from a customer? I didn’t have any clear structure for what to do.”

In 2015, Soto joined a group of women telling their stories in a meeting with Long Beach City Councilmember Suzie Price. According to Soto, there were 14 other women present, all with stories as bad or worse than hers. Most of the women were housekeepers from a variety of hotels. One of them, Soto says, told about an incident that happened while she was cleaning the bathroom in the hotel’s gym. A man walked in, dropped the towel that covered his genitals, and blocked her from leaving. She managed to escape anyway, but in her haste left her sweater behind.

Later, the woman found her sweater on her cart, soiled with semen.

“I listened to her,” Soto says. “And I cried.”

The anecdotal accounts are borne out by data. According to an April 2016 survey of 487 female hotel and casino workers, conducted by UNITE-HERE Local 1 in Chicago, 58 percent of housekeepers reported being sexually harassed by hotel guests, and 49 percent said that guests have exposed their genitals to them. Restaurant workers, too, are on the front lines of sexual harassment battles, not least because they work for tips — a situation that forces them to influence their customers to add a few dollars onto the bill. In another survey, of 688 current and former restaurant workers across 39 states in 2014, 78 percent said they’d been sexually harassed.

“Most of the women who clean our hotel rooms are women of color,” says Soto, who has channeled her anger over her restaurant experience into becoming a relentless advocate for hotel housekeepers. “They are coming here from another country. They are single mothers. Some of them don’t speak English. They’re alone on these floors. If they yell, who’s going to listen?”

“Some companies are giving their employees whistles,” she adds. “Fucking whistles. You go blow your whistle on the 17th floor when someone’s attacking you. I’ll wait.”

Last year, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a landmark law, the Seattle Hotel Employees Health and Safety Initiative, establishing specific labor standards for hotel workers. In addition to lowering workloads and improving medical care for workers, the law stipulates that employers provide housekeepers, room servers and anyone else who works alone in a hotel room with a “panic button,” a small wireless device that sends a signal to security whenever a worker considers herself in danger.

It also requires hotels to post notices on the inside of guest room doors stating, “The Law Protects Hotel Housekeepers and Other Employees from Violent Assault and Sexual Harassment.” The names of guests who have been accused, in sworn statements, of violating the law will be added to a blacklist and denied service for three years.

Women’s and worker’s rights advocates, and hotel workers themselves, had long lobbied the Long Beach City Council to pass an almost identical ordinance, culminating in a September council session that rejected the law by a 5-4 vote. Lynn Mohrfeld, president of the California Hotel and Lodging Association, had warned that a blacklist of offending guests would draw legal challenges. He also argued that the provisions of the ordinance were already covered under existing law.

He’s only half right, Drobac says. It’s true that hotels are already out of compliance with existing law if they knowingly tolerate guests sexual harassing or otherwise abusing their employees. But one perfectly legal, and possibly mandatory, way of reining those guests in is indeed to refuse to serve repeat offenders — in other words, a blacklist. “If a hotel manager goes to Mr. Weinstein and says, ‘In case there’s any confusion, we want to make sure you know that the women who work here are not for your sexual enjoyment,’ and if Mr. Weinstein doesn’t get the message, then hotel has to fire him.”

Signs may not necessarily help. “You could have billboards in your lobby [saying ‘We Don’t Tolerate Sexual Harassment,’]” Drobac says. “But if the managers don’t take action, they’re meaningless.”

Absent more explicit ordinances, UCLA’s Kent Wong, too, advises hotel workers to keep the pressure on their employers using existing law. “Fundamentally, this is an organizing challenge. If more women are supported when they step forward, when they complain about being victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, and are given adequate remedies,” he says, “that begins to change the equation.”

He realizes it isn’t easy. “All the women who have come out against Donald Trump are still being called liars, and the president of the United States has threatened them with litigation,” he says. In the struggle to empower women to speak out, “we still have a long way to go.”


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