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Journalists’ Union Drive Involves Much More Than Jobs

Reprinted with permission from Portside

As destiny would have it, just days after Amazon used illegal tactics to derail a drive by warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama to unionize, journalists in northern New Jersey who work for Gannett are voting on whether or not to form a union. They are affiliated with NorthJersey.com, the Bergen Record, the Daily Record and the NJ Herald.

In both cases the workers putting so much at risk to form a union are like David facing off with Goliath. Armed only with their courage to stand up for their own collective sense of right and wrong, they face multi-billion-dollar corporate behemoths that are the very engine of the wealth concentration and radical income disparity that have come to define the global economy.

As multiple economic studies have documented, since the 1970's workers saw their wages flatline or decline, even as technology saw their productivity, the wealth their labor generated, grow exponentially.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the newspaper business which I entered through the loading dock door decades ago at the Ridgewood Newspapers in Bergen County, when I started in the typesetting and composition department.

As a reporter, I watched as technology reduced the number of people it took to produce the newspaper, but those labor savings never found their way into the paychecks of those of us who continued to produce the newspaper.

Rather it went to the capital interests that swallowed up local newspapers which permitted those Wall Street types to corner the entire industry.

We were told we were lucky to have a job, which is a mantra that has only gotten louder as the corporate titans like Gannett, which now owns one in five of America's newspapers, has gutted the staffs of the local newspapers it has devoured in an unrelenting squeeze play that put profits over people.

"Since 2016, we have seen more than half of our colleagues lose their jobs, with cuts of over 250 people at The Record, the Daily Record and the NJ Herald," wrote the Gannett employees seeking union representation in their mission statement. "Staffers who were unceremoniously laid off include a reporter nearly nine months pregnant and a 30-year-veteran reporter who was forced to take a buyout after missing a single email to opt out of the process."

Their statement continued. "By forming a union, we are taking a stand for respect and dignity, and greater protections against unjust terminations and reductions in force. We are uniting with NewsGuild members around the country in a movement to save local news and ensure a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect our paper and the news coverage we provide. There is no journalism without journalists."

But Gannett is hardly alone.

According to the Pew Research Center's analysis U.S. newspapers "have shed half of their newsroom employees since 2008."

"From 2008 to 2019, overall newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23 percent, according to the new analysis," Pew reported. "In 2008, there were about 114,000 newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers and videographers – in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and 'other information services' (the best match for digital-native news publishers). By 2019, that number had declined to about 88,000, a loss of about 27,000 jobs."

With the contraction of authentically reported local news what filled the void was social media click bate and propaganda as the nation lost the vital sense of situational awareness that comes from a vibrant local press. It's not hard to track the devolution of our national circumstance to the Jan. 6 insurrection where thousands were ready to overthrow our democracy in their own cyber bubble where they were convinced the 2020 election was stolen.

After all, they heard it on the "news."

What's happened to the news gathering workforce played out across every other industry and has only accelerated since the early 1980s when President Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who were on strike. He also banned them for life from federal employment. His scorched earth approach got traction with private employers who adopted similar tactics.

Before Reagan's mass firing, close to one in four Americans were represented by a union. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics just 10.8 percent are, a .5 percent increase from the year before.

In transportation, where crews on trains and ships have been slashed, the results have been calamitous for people and the planet. Consider the runway oil train that was unattended when in 2014 it leveled a Quebec community's downtown killing 47 residents. Maritime fatigue, the result of short staffing, has produced oil spills visible from space.

In the healthcare sector we see it in the business model of nursing homes where profiteers pay as little as they can to as few people as possible to care for our most vulnerable. More than a year into the COVID pandemic, we have seen the consequences of that business model carried on the backs of low wage caregivers who often had to work in more than one facility to make ends meet and spread the deadly virus in the process.

With the historical decline of unions, there's been an explosion in so-called gig workers, who as "independent contractors" are part of a precarious workforce that lacks the basic safety net of healthcare or access to workers compensation in the event they are injured or disabled while working.

No doubt, they too, are told they are lucky to have a job, even if they can't really call it that.

At both the state and federal level, our democracy has become captive to these capital interests that have successfully pressed for deregulation in a world where corporations can plot global domination for maximum profits subsidized by our tax policy. Meanwhile, workers are blocked at every turn from organizing collectively in their own and in their community's self-interest.

And just what has this brave new world dominated by Goliaths like Amazon and Gannett given us?

According to Forbes, in October the Federal Reserve found that the top one percent of Americans had a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion in wealth, or 30.4 percent of all U.S. household wealth, while the bottom 50 percent of the population held just $2.1 trillion, or 1.9 percent of all wealth.

Is it merely coincidental that the breathtaking concentration of corporate media power that Gannett represents comes as the well-documented concentration of wealth continues to grow and even accelerate in this country during the pandemic?

Let's hope our colleagues at The Record, the Daily Record and the NJ Herald can carry the day and form a union.

Facing A Threat From Republicans, Will Public And Private Sector Unions Unite?

Reprinted with permission from City & State NY.

In recent months, the labor movement had been on the winning side of the news cycle. First, President Donald Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, fast food executive Andrew Puzder, was withdrawn. Then the push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act collapsed.

But on closer examination, both the Puzder flameout and the health care meltdown were mostly due to self-inflicted wounds. The disclosure of Puzder’s domestic violence history and upstate Reps. Chris Collins and John Faso’s attempt to shift county Medicaid costs to their home state exacted a heavy price for Republicans.

In reality, these labor “wins” were rearguard actions by a union movement with fractures between its leadership and its rank and file that Trump, much like former President Ronald Reagan, has already exploited. Trump’s path to the White House was paved when he flipped 200 counties in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania that voted for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Trump did that by winning hundreds of thousands of votes from union members whose leaders had bet big on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 and who backed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in last year’s presidential race, said he believes the Democratic Party has lost touch with its blue-collar working-class voters – and Trump has cashed in. Now, Samuelsen said, Trump is courting private sector unions while his budget would lay off thousands of unionized federal workers.

“There is a playbook and it belongs to the illustrious governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker and that playbook was to go after the public sector and sort of tell the uniforms and the trades that everything would be OK and then after he got done gutting the public sector, he gutted everybody else as well,” Samuelsen said. “Walker has had meetings with Trump since the election and hopefully organized labor is not going to be deluded into thinking that can’t happen nationally the way it happened in Wisconsin.”

“(Wisconsin Gov. Scott) Walker has had meetings with Trump since the election and hopefully organized labor is not going to be deluded into thinking that can’t happen nationally the way it happened in Wisconsin.” – John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100

In 2011, Walker and the Wisconsin state Legislature dismantled decades of labor protections, ending collective bargaining for public unions and requiring them to pay more for their health care and pension benefits. Walker withstood a recall election and went on to win re-election.

Since 2011, union membership has dropped by 40 percent in Wisconsin with just 8 percent of the state’s workers now in a union, well below the national average of 11 percent. During his own short-lived presidential bid, Walker pledged to eliminate the National Labor Relations Board and end union representation for federal workers. “If you’re a big-government union boss in Washington, this is a threat to you and to all of the politicians that you have under your control in our nation’s capital,” Walker said at a Nevada campaign rally, according to Reuters.

Wisconsin passed a right-to-work law, a measure that historically had traction only in the South and West, but in 2012 a similar measure was enacted in Indiana and Michigan. As early as 1995, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing think tank supported by the Koch brothers, had been pushing state legislatures to adopt the anti-union measure.

By contrast, New York has the highest percentage of unionized workers in the country, at a time when unions are in a precipitous decline nationally. Between 2000 and 2016, New York’s percentage of workers in a union only fell from 25.5 percent to 23.6 percent and New York is now the only state in the nation where more than 20 percent of the workforce belongs to a union.

Not since the 1920s has the Republican Party, traditionally anti-union, so totally dominated state capitals. As a consequence, both New York’s public and private unions are in the national labor union vanguard, to staunch the bleeding from a movement that began here. Now, activists say distinctions between private and public sector unions have to fall away as they face a battle for survival.

With Congress and the White House in Republican hands, Samuelsen said unions have to anticipate that a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court could make a union comeback an even steeper climb. “Everything is an organizing challenge, whether it be a Supreme Court decision that impacts us negatively in terms of our ability to function and our ability to collect dues or national right-to-work legislation, we can’t just put our heads in the sand,” he said. “We have to get out in front of it.”

A key part of TWU’s strategy is to look for organizing opportunities. “In the private sector, we organize anything that moves, like the tour bus operations and bike share workers here in New York, Philadelphia and out in San Francisco,” he said.

Arthur Cheliotes, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180, which represents New York City’s supervisory and administrative employees, says his union has expanded into nonprofits. It now represents workers with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Planned Parenthood and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Cheliotes said successful unions today have to not only organize in the workplace but also in the wider community. “It means a grass-roots approach to connect with their members making sure that at the front lines the members understand the value of a union and probably more importantly bring about more militancy,” he said. “Ultimately it should be organized people fighting organized money.”

Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. Follow him @stucknation.

Federal Layoffs Loom As Trump’s Meat-Ax Targets EPA And IRS

Reprinted with permission from The Chief.

The draft of President Trump’s first Executive Budget indicates he will make double-digit funding cuts to dozens of non-military agencies as diverse as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. State Department.

If his budget gets Congressional approval, the spending reductions would result in thousands of layoffs, according to members of Congress and the unions that represent the Federal workforce.

The Federal fiscal year starts in October, and critics of the proposed cuts are hoping that they can limit their scope in the Senate, where the GOP has only a four-seat advantage and members may be concerned about next year’s elections and falling into line behind a scorched-earth agenda that was not a key component in Trump’s upset victory.

On the table is a proposed 24-percent cutback at the EPA, which would downsize its headcount of 15,000 by 20 percent; a 37-percent rollback for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a 14-percent cut to the IRS.

The Trump cuts also zero in on agencies that are part of the core of the Department of Homeland Security, including a 14-percent slash to the Coast Guard and 11-percent reductions to both the Transportation Security Administration and FEMA, according to the New York Times. The savings resulting from these cuts would allow increases in headcounts for border and immigration enforcement and for the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico that Mr. Trump made a central campaign pledge.

In an email exchange with THE CHIEF-LEADER, Mi­chael Chertoff, the former DHS Secretary under President George W. Bush, was critical of the Trump strategy to shift resources to the Mexican border by cutting funds that go to protect the nation’s vast coastline and airports. “It’s a little like putting an extra lock on the front door and none on the back door,” he wrote. “You are not protecting the house. It these cuts happen, it would be counterproductive.”

“These budget cuts will make a difficult job even harder for the women and men who protect our skies, patrol our waters, and help us prepare for and respond to emergencies,” American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement. “President Trump promised to ‘make American safe again,’ but the drastic budget cuts he’s proposing will do just the opposite. You don’t improve security by slashing budgets for programs that prevent terrorists from hijacking airplanes.”

One of Mr.Trump’s first official actions upon taking office was to impose a Federal hiring freeze “to be applied across the board in the executive branch.” The executive order excluded the military and gave the heads of all executive-branch departments the latitude to grant exemptions if they deem it “necessary to meet national-security or public-safety responsibilities.”

Back in January, the President also directed that within 90 days of the executive order, “the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the Director of Office of Personnel Management, shall recommend a long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition.”

The significant spending reductions under last week’s budget draft call for cuts in the form of billions of dollars in domestic grant aid passed down to states, counties, and local governments, as well as the reduction in Federal headcount. The dramatic realignment in priorities is being driven by Trump’s plan to use the $54 billion in cuts to fund new spending for the Pentagon, offset significant tax cuts, and wind down agencies like the EPA. Trump contended throughout his campaign that it was “killing American jobs” and gave an edge to the country’s foreign competitors.

In comments made last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist, flagged the “three verticals” that would shape the President’s priorities going forward: “national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism,” and “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

But in addition to making plans for dramatic cuts to the civil-service workforce down the road, Trump has yet to fill more than 1,000 top political positions with job titles like Deputy Secretary which would require congressional confirmation, according to National Public Radio. While many news commentators saw this as a sign of incompetence, Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Policy, said it was the sign of a disciplined strategy of “deconstructing” the government. “They may look chaotic, but they are crazy like a fox,” he said in a phone interview.

For Light, the most compelling evidence of the Trump administration’s intention was the 14-percent cut it wants for the IRS.

“Think about it. What better way to break the back of the government than by undermining the ability of the Federal Government to fund itself?” Light asked. “It fits right into the deconstruction agenda. Like removing the electrical wiring in a house. You start sawing off big parts of these agencies and under-staff them enough so they can’t function; you break morale and finish them off by strangling their funding.”

Light said that in selecting Congressman Mick Mulvaney from South Carolina to lead his Office of Management and Budget, Mr. Trump picked a “really smart guy” who knew the ins and outs of the budget process better than anyone and would “be the most-effective Budget Director in the last 20 years.”

 Light, who spent time working on Capitol Hill and retains good sources there, said he was closely following a proposed House measure that would give new clout to political appointees over their civil-service subordinates.

“It would give Cabinet-level officials the prerogative to demote anyone of the 6,000 members of the Senior Executive Service, the highest-paid career people inside the government,” he said. “Any one of these measures by themselves would be significant, but taken in their totality, it is a well-executed deconstruction strategy.”

The combined impact of the hiring freeze and the previous elimination of close to a third of the IRS’s personnel could leave taxpayers frustrated in future years, warned Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. NTEU represents 160,000 workers across dozens of Federal agencies.

He said last month in a phone interview, “When you look across government, we certainly have many agencies that have been underfunded. If you look specifically at the IRS since 2010, the IRS has lost almost $1 billion of its funding. That has resulted in the IRS losing on the order of 20,000 employees; that is roughly 30 percent of their workforce.”

According to a senior Federal official not cleared to speak with the news media, the last large-scale reduction-in-force layoffs happened back in the 1990s at the Department of Defense. Reduction-in-force guidelines were first codified after World War II, when the national government wanted to downsize.

Those basic parameters, still in force today, require that civil-service employees subject to termination be ranked into a retention register based on their veteran status, length of service, job performance and the type of service, assuring that provisional hires would be first to go. “The concept is to make sure the newer employees and the poor performers go first,” the source said.

Those employees may retain the right to “bump” other employees, depending on their own work history, how high up they are on the retention registry, and the nature of the cutback.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told the Denver Post that a voluntary buyout program across the government could be more feasible than just reducing the size of the workforce. “It’s something we’ve been contemplating putting together,” he said. “We have not yet figured out the final equation.”

IMAGE: FILE PHOTO: Mick Mulvaney testifies before a Senate Budget Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination of to be director of the Office of Management and Budget on Capitol Hill, January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo