Brett Wilkins

Brazil's Bolsonaro faces growing calls for his impeachment

Following massive nationwide weekend protests against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration's mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, bombshell reporting this week personally implicating the right-wing leader in yet another alleged corruption scheme has heightened calls for his impeachment.

In a series of articles for UOL, journalist Juliana Dal Piva details Bolsonaro's alleged supervision of a kickback scheme—known locally as rachadinha, or "ghost employees," who pay part of their salaries to their bosses—during his three decades as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the federal Legislature.

In an audio recording obtained by Dal Piva, bodybuilder Andrea Siqueira Valle, the president's ex-sister-in-law, says that Bolsonaro had her brother André Siqueira Valle fired because he never paid an agreed-upon kickback of R$6,000, or about $1,150 U.S., from each of his paychecks.

"André had a lot of trouble because he never returned the correct money that had to be returned, you know?" she says on the recording. "He had to hand over R$6,000, [but] he returned R$2,000, R$3,000. This went on for a long time until Jair said: 'Enough. You can get rid of him because he never gives me back the correct amount of money.'"

Erika Hilton, a member of the São Paulo City Council representing the Socialist and Freedom Party (PSOL), said that the new scandal "unravels what we all knew."

"The Bolsonaro family has always been corrupt, [it] embezzles funds via rachadinha as a hereditary political practice," Hilton tweeted.

Bolsonaro's eldest son, Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro (Patriota-Rio de Janeiro), has been embroiled in a yearslong graft scandal in which he stands accused of laundering the equivalent of over $150,000 via the cash purchase of an apartment. Another of Bolsonaro's sons, as well as his ex-wife, have also been implicated in salary-splitting schemes.

Members of Bolsonaro's family have also come under fire for alleged links to a paramilitary death squad whose members in 2018 assassinated Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro City Council member who was an outspoken critic of police brutality and extrajudicial murders.

News of the latest Bolsonaro scandal follows Saturday protests that drew at least hundreds of thousands of Brazilians into the streets of cities across the nation and around the world to call for the president's impeachment, and for Covid-19 vaccines and $R600 emergency stimulus payments.

"I'm here because we absolutely have to get this monster out of power and reclaim Brazil," Rio de Janeiro protester Magda Souza told The Guardian.

Another demonstrator, 18-year-old Daniel Melo, told the U.K.-based paper that he was attending the protest in memory of his 86-year-old grandmother, who "went to hospital and never came home" because she died of Covid-19. Melo, who called Bolsonaro "genocidal," claimed that the president "wanted to kill everyone."

Last week, the Brazilian attorney general's office opened an investigation into allegations Bolsonaro ignored warnings of irregularities in Covid-19 vaccine procurement. The Bolsonaro administration has been widely condemned for intentionally stalling coronavirus vaccine deals with Pfizer, as well as allegedly conditioning the purchase of other vaccine doses on kickbacks.

Also last week, a study was published examining the scale of Brazil's Covid-19 crisis. It concluded that 400,000 lives could have been saved had the Bolsonaro administration implemented stronger social distancing rules and began vaccinating people earlier.

Saturday's protests were the third wave of anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations, with more rallies set to take place on July 24. The embattled president is beset by multiple calamities, including mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic—which he called a "little flu," and has now claimed more than 520,000 Brazilian lives—the resignation or firing of numerous government ministers and military chiefs, various environmental crises, and widespread calls from across the political spectrum for his impeachment.

Brazilian lawmakers and civil society groups representing a wide range of political parties and ideologies last week filed a "super-request" for Bolsonaro's impeachment, merging 123 previous petitions to remove the president from office based on 23 alleged crimes.

Arthur Lira (Progressistas-Alagoas), speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and the lawmaker with the power to decide whether to begin impeachment proceedings against Bolsonaro, said Monday that "there is nothing to justify the opening of the impeachment process at this time."

"Brazil cannot become politically unstable with the election of each new president," said Lira—who, along with his father, Sen. Benedito de Lira, also of the right-wing Progressistas party, was caught up in the Car Wash scandal that resulted in the 2016 impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff of the left-wing Workers' Party.

Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers' Party), was jailed for his role in the scandal, in which Rousseff's right-wing successor, Michel Temer, Flavio Bolsonaro, and numerous other Brazilian politicians and business figures were also embroiled.

Bolsonaro officially closed the investigation into Car Wash last October, declaring that "there is no more corruption in the government."

The Supreme Court just handed down a 'horrifying' decision for immigrants

In a decision called "horrifying" by human rights advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the government may indefinitely detain previously deported immigrants who claim they will be tortured or persecuted if returned to their countries of origin.

The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines in Johnson v. Guzman Chavez that a group of previously removed immigrants who were apprehended again after reentering the United States could not be released on bond while the government evaluates their claims of "reasonable fear" of torture or persecution. The decision reverses a U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the immigrants' favor.

Writing for the court's majority, Justice Samuel Alito noted that "Congress has created an expedited process" for the removal of "aliens" caught reentering the U.S. following a deportation.

"Those aliens are not entitled to a bond hearing while they pursue withholding of removal," Alito declared.

Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas rounded out the majority.

Justice Stephen Breyer penned a dissent that was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

"Why would Congress want to deny a bond hearing to individuals who reasonably fear persecution or torture, and who, as a result, face proceedings that may last for many months or years?" wrote Breyer. "I can find no satisfactory answer to this question."

Human rights advocates blasted the ruling. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, called the decision a "horrifying outcome" that was "written by the worst possible justice you could want to write an immigration case."

Sarah Paoletti, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School's Practice Professor of Law, and director of the Transnational Legal Clinic, wrote:

Just a day after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a hearing on egregious rights violations committed against individuals held in immigrant detention, and questioned the legitimacy of a system of detention that criminalizes individuals seeking refuge in the United States, the 6-3 conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, in Johnson v. Guzman Chavez, has dismissed U.S. obligations under international human rights law and ruled that persons seeking refuge in the United States after a prior order of removal must be held in detention without the right to a bond hearing while they pursue legal avenues for immigration relief.

"Today, six Supreme Court Justices determined that the clear text of the Immigration and Nationality Act—provisions introduced into the law in 1996—gives individuals fleeing persecution no opportunity to challenge their detention," added Paoletti, "and in doing so have sanctioned the United States' use of punitive, prolonged, and arbitrary detention as a means of immigration enforcement and deterrence."

Experts warn Florida tower disaster could be a climate emergency 'wake-up call'

In the search for answers following last week's disintegration of a high-rise condominium tower near Miami, some experts are cautiously pointing to the climate emergency as a possible culprit—or at the very least a risk multiplier in the disaster—underscoring the need for urgent climate and infrastructure action.

With 11 confirmed deaths and 150 people still missing following the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside on June 24, rescuing survivors and retrieving victims' bodies remains authorities' top priority. However, officials and experts have also begun the long and daunting task of determining what caused the building to fail.

A 2018 engineering report on the 12-story tower noted design flaws and "major structural damage," including a deteriorating roof, defective waterproofing, and crumbling concrete columns and rusting rebar in the building's underground garage. The report warned that some of these problems could cause "exponential damage" in the future.

With so much well-documented existing damage, and with repairs to the building underway at the time it disintegrated, experts have been reluctant to attribute the collapse to any single cause.

However, numerous scientists and other experts say that rising sea levels and more intense tidal flooding related to the climate emergency could have played a significant role in the disaster.

There is little doubt among experts that a warming planet due to human activity is causing sea levels to rise, and it is certain that rising waters can infiltrate the porous limestone upon which southeastern Florida buildings stand, potentially degrading their foundations over time.

As a 5.9-inch rise in local sea levels and 320% surge in nuisance flooding in the area since the mid-1990s attests, metro Miami is particularly susceptible to the consequences of the climate emergency. Last year, a report (pdf) from Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, stated that Miami is "one of the most at-risk cities in the world from the damages caused by coastal flooding and storms."

Atorod Azizinamini, who directs the Moss School of Construction, Infrastructure, and Sustainability at Florida International University (FIU), told The Palm Beach Post that "climate change can play a role" in disasters like the Champlain Towers South collapse. "It can cause settlement of the ground with sea level rise, and corrosion."

Zhong-Ren Peng, director of the International Center for Adaptation Planning and Design at the University of Florida, told The Palm Beach Post that "sea level rise does cause potential corrosion and if that was happening, it's possible it could not handle the weight of the building."

"I think this could be a wake-up call for coastal developments," warned Peng.

Albert Slap, chief executive of the Boca Raton, Florida-based construction risk assessment company RiskFootprint, explained to The Washington Post that "groundwater enters the pores of the concrete and ultimately weakens it and erodes it. So the foundations are subject to a lot of geological forces that could compact the soil underneath. It could cause voids. We just don't know."

Slap said the Champlain Towers South disaster "could be a canary-in-the-coal-mine-type event."

"It's not just one building," he added. "This could be something that could affect other buildings."

Climate scientists predict (pdf) an acceleration in sea level rise in southeastern Florida, with a projected increase of 10 to 17 inches by 2040, 21 to 54 inches by 2070, and 40 to 136 inches by 2120.

Land subsidence—the sudden sinking or gradual settling of the ground's surface—is also linked to the climate emergency. Shimon Wdowinski, a professor at Florida International University's Institute of Environment, said an analysis of space-based radar data revealed signs of such subsidence at the site of the tower disaster in the 1990s.

"We reported about two millimeters per year over a period of six years so that comes to about 12 millimeters, about half an inch, or about the width of your finger," Wdowinski told The Weather Channel. "So small things and slow processes can accumulate if you give them enough time."

Separately, Wdowinski said that "when we measure subsidence or when we see movement of the buildings, it's worth checking why it happens."

"We cannot say what is the reason for that from the satellite images but we can say there was movement here," he added.

Like many cities around the world, Miami is taking steps in an effort to mitigate the effects of rising seas and sinking land. According to Miami's Stormwater Master Plan, installing a system of pumps, drainage, and sea walls would cost approximately $4 billion and still leave some areas without adequate protection.

However, experts warn that only urgent, transformational action can avert worst-case climate scenarios, and that attempting to merely treat the symptoms of the climate emergency with measures like sea walls will ultimately fail.

In a 2019 Popula article, essayist Sarah Miller wrote that "since Miami is built on limestone, which soaks up water like a sponge, walls are not very useful. In Miami, sea water will just go under a wall, like a salty ghost. It will come up through the pipes and seep up around the manholes. It will soak into the sand and find its way into caves and get under the water table and push the ground water up."

"So while walls might keep the clogs of Holland dry, they cannot offer similar protection to the stilettos of Miami Beach," she added.

Harold Wanless, a geologist and sea level rise expert at the University of Miami, told The Guardian that "every sandy barrier island, every low-lying coast, from Miami to Mumbai, will become inundated and [it will be] difficult to maintain functional infrastructure."

"You can put valves in sewers and put in sea walls but the problem is the water will keep coming up through the limestone," said Wanless. "You're not going to stop this."

A livable planet as infrastructure: Northwestern heatwave sparks calls for transformative climate action

As the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada bake under what's being described as a "once-in-a-millennium" heat dome, green groups on Monday reiterated the need for transformational change to address the climate emergency, while progressive U.S. lawmakers underscored the imperative for any infrastructure legislation to center climate action.

Temperatures exceeded 110 degrees in Portland, Oregon for the second straight day—and the third consecutive record-setting day—on Monday, melting power cables, destroying road surfaces, and causing some homes to shake.

In Seattle, the mercury soared to a record-setting 106 degrees on Monday, with some surrounding areas expected to reach as high as 115 degrees.

On Sunday, the town of Lytton, British Columbia broke Canada's all-time high temperature record, becoming the first place in the country to ever top 45°C (113°F).

As groups including 350 Seattle and Defense Fund PDX mobilized to distribute potentially lifesaving hydration and cooling aid in their communities, they also issued urgent calls for immediate climate action.

Valerie Costa of 350 Seattle said in a statement that the historic heatwave "is terrifying proof that we have to transform business as usual immediately, to stop the damage that we can still stop. Lives all over the world depend on it."

350 Seattle's Emily Johnston added that "people can get air conditioners and then try to forget how wildly abnormal this is... or they can join us in fighting for the immediate transformation that we need."

"Other cities around the world have transformed even in just the last few years, dramatically increasing bike lanes, otherwise shifting land use, and rejecting airport expansion," Johnston added. "Seattle has mostly... made pronouncements. We mean to harness people's energy and anxiety to change that."

Meanwhile, Sunrise Movement PDX called out "legislators in Oregon who claim to be 'acting on climate' who voted yesterday to give the [state] authority to spend hundreds of millions of dollars widening freeways in Clackamas County."

Progressive lawmakers echoed some of climate campaigners' calls and concerns.

Noting Portland's melting power cables, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) called the heatwave "yet another striking example of why our infrastructure package must center climate action to halt, reverse, mitigate, and prepare for the worst consequences of the climate crisis."

Blumenauer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in February introduced a bill directing President Joe Biden to declare a national climate emergency and mobilize every resource available to address the crisis.

In a tweet highlighting a Monday rally and march on the White House by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) asserted that "making sure our planet is habitable for human life is infrastructure" while calling for "a bold package that tackles the climate crisis."

In addition to much of the western part of the continent, much of New England also experienced extreme temperatures on Monday, with heat advisories in effect across the region.

Amid triple-digit heat indexes in Massachusetts, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced he would re-introduce the Preventing Health Emergencies And Temperature-related (HEAT) Illness and Deaths Act "to combat the threat of extreme heat" and "strengthen inter-agency efforts to study and address extreme heat while providing millions of dollars in grants to reduce exposure to extreme heat."

Trans rights activists score an 'incredible victory' at the Supreme Court

In what civil rights advocates hailed as "an incredible victory," the United States Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the case of Gavin Grimm, a former Virginia high school student who in 2015 sued his county board of education over its policy of denying transgender pupils use of restrooms corresponding with their gender identity.

The high court's move lets stand G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, a 2020 ruling in which the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that policies segregating transgender students from their peers are unconstitutional.

Specifically, Grimm—who was represented by the ACLU and ACLU of Virginia—successfully argued that the school board's discriminatory policy violated Title IX, the federal law barring discrimination on the basis of sex in education.

Grimm's legal battle began when, as a 15-year-old Gloucester High School sophomore in 2015, he sued the county school board. Earlier that year, the Obama administration's Department of Education issued guidance stating that "a school generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity."

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed Grimm's case. He appealed, and in April 2016 the Fourth Circuit ruled in his favor.

However, the Supreme Court subsequently blocked an order allowing Grimm to use restrooms matching his gender identity, with the justices announcing in October 2016 that they would review the Fourth Circuit ruling.

Following the election of former President Donald Trump—whose Education Department reversed the Obama-era guidance—the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit, which, after last year's landmark Bostock v. Clayton County SCOTUS decision, ruled in favor of Grimm.

Grimm welcomed the Supreme Court's move on Monday.

"I am glad that my yearslong fight to have my school see me for who I am is over," he said in a statement. "Being forced to use the nurse's room, a private bathroom, and the girl's room was humiliating for me, and having to go to out-of-the-way bathrooms severely interfered with my education."

"Trans youth deserve to use the bathroom in peace without being humiliated and stigmatized by their own school boards and elected officials," Grimm asserted.

Josh Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's LGBTQ & HIV Project, said in a statement that "this is the third time in recent years that the Supreme Court has allowed appeals court decisions in support of transgender students to stand."

"This is an incredible victory for Gavin and for transgender students around the country," Block added. "Our work is not yet done, and the ACLU is continuing to fight against anti-trans laws targeting trans youth in states around the country."

According to the LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD, there are scores of Republican-sponsored bills under consideration in a majority of U.S. states targeting the rights of transgender students. Numerous states have already passed laws or implemented executive orders erasing or limiting transgender students' rights to participate in scholastic sports or receive gender-affirming healthcare.

Clarence Thomas is lone dissenter in free speech SCOTUS case involving cursing teenager

In a landmark ruling for student free speech in the digital era, the United State Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a Pennsylvania high school violated a cheerleader's First Amendment right to freedom of speech when it disciplined her following a profanity-laden social media post.

The justices ruled 8-1 in Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L. (pdf) in favor of Brandi Levy, who was kicked off the junior varsity cheerleading team at Mahanoy Area High School in 2017 after she posted a Snapchat photo of herself and a friend flipping their middle fingers with the text, "fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything." The post was published off campus and after school hours.

"The school itself has an interest in protecting a student's unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus, because America's public schools are the nurseries of democracy," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter in the case.

"It might be tempting to dismiss B. L.'s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections," Breyer wrote. "But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary."

Breyer also wrote that the high court does not "now set forth a broad, highly general First Amendment rule stating just what counts as 'off campus' speech and whether or how ordinary First Amendment standards must give way off campus to a school's special need to prevent... substantial disruption of learning-related activities."

Levy, who is now an 18-year-old college student, welcomed the ruling.

"The school went too far, and I'm glad that the Supreme Court agrees," she said in a statement after the decision. "I was frustrated, I was 14 years old, and I expressed my frustration the way teenagers do today. Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school."

"I never could have imagined that one simple snap would turn into a Supreme Court case, but I'm proud that my family and I advocated for the rights of millions of public school students," she added.

Civil liberties advocates also hailed the ruling as one of the most important free speech decisions in decades.

"Protecting young people's free speech rights when they are outside of school is vital, and this is a huge victory for the free speech rights of millions of students who attend our nation's public schools," said ACLU legal director David Cole.

"The school in this case asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered 'disruptive,' regardless of where it occurs," Cole continued. "If the court had accepted that argument, it would have put in peril all manner of young people's speech, including their expression on politics, school operations, and general teen frustrations."

"The message from this ruling is clear," added Cole. "Free speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students."

Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania—which represented Levy—said, "I am proud of our team at the ACLU, who effectively argued before three courts that public school students should not be monitored 24/7 by school officials."

"I am especially proud of Brandi and her family, who stood up for one of the most fundamental rights that we cherish in this country, the right to speak freely without government interference," added Walczak.

'Our democracy hangs in the balance': Calls grow for Justice Breyer to retire

In the wake of a threat by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to block any potential Supreme Court nominee proffered by President Joe Biden in 2024 should the Kentucky Republican become majority leader after the midterm elections, more than a dozen progressive advocacy groups joined a growing number of Democratic lawmakers Tuesday urging Justice Stephen Breyer to retire.

On Tuesday afternoon, 13 advocacy groups—Battle Born Collective, Black Lives Matter, Common Defense, Demand Justice, Justice Democrats, People's Parity Project, Sunrise Movement, Take Back the Court Action Fund, Ultraviolet, We Testify, Women's March, and the Working Families Party—published a joint statement imploring Breyer to step down for democracy's sake.

"Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer should immediately announce his intent to retire from the bench," the statement said. "With future control of the closely divided Senate uncertain, President Biden must have the opportunity to nominate a successor without delay and fulfill his pledge to put the first Black woman on the Supreme Court."

"If Breyer were replaced by an additional ultra-conservative justice, an even further-right Supreme Court would leave our democracy and the rights of marginalized communities at even greater risk," the statement added. "For the good of the country, now is the time to step aside."

Also on Tuesday, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) published an opinion piece on the website of the progressive think tank Data for Progress urging Breyer to retire in order to preserve both "the future of our democracy" and his own progressive legacy.

"It has never been more urgent for the 82-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer to retire—before it's too late to confirm the successor America deserves," wrote Jones.

"New polling from Data for Progress confirms that the American people agree," he continued. "Nearly six in 10 Americans recognize that it is time for Justice Breyer to conclude his 27 years of service on the Supreme Court. That pro-retirement supermajority includes over two-thirds of Democrats and half of Independents."

Jones urged Breyer to not make what some observers view as the mistake made by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death less than two months before the 2020 election enabled former President Donald Trump to nominate far-right judge Amy Coney Barrett, who the congressman said is "poised to unravel her legacy."

"People of good conscience are urging Justice Breyer to step down now precisely because of how much we respect his legacy," wrote Jones. "In his 27 years on the Supreme Court, he has demonstrated his commitment to racial equity, reproductive justice, and democracy."

Jones continued:

We should be concerned by the prospect of Justice Breyer being replaced by someone who does not share his values. The only way to prevent another Amy Coney Barrett or Brett Kavanaugh from undoing his work is for Justice Breyer to announce his retirement before the next Supreme Court term—allowing President Biden and the Democratic Senate to choose his replacement.

The latest poll from Data for Progress reveals that the American people are excited about who that successor could be. President Biden has promised to appoint a Black woman to the next open Supreme Court seat—and over 80% of Democrats and a majority of Independents are looking forward to seeing that promise fulfilled. By retiring now, Justice Breyer can make that possible.

"In the last decade, the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, empowered large corporations, and waged a relentless attack on working people, people of color, and immigrants," wrote Jones. "We believe it would be unseemly to remain silent at this moment."

"As the American people recognize, the stakes are too high for inaction," he concluded. "It is time for Justice Breyer to announce his retirement this summer. Democrats could lose our razor-thin majority in the Senate at any moment. It would be irresponsible to leave the future of our democracy up to chance."

Jones' call and the groups' statement came a day after McConnell—the self-described "Grim Reaper" of Democrats' legislative agenda—raised eyebrows and alarm among progressives after he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that "it's highly unlikely" he would "confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the middle of an election."

With McConnell as majority leader, the GOP-controlled Senate last year rushed to confirm Barrett, Trump's third Supreme Court nominee, in the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, giving conservatives a 6-3 high court supermajority that progressive advocates say threatens civil, voting, reproductive, and other critical rights and protections for years, if not decades, to come.

McConnell's actions in 2020 stood in stark contrast with Republicans' terminal stonewalling of former President Barack Obama's nomination of current Attorney General Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016.

Following what they described as McConnell's hypocritically cynical about-face—in 2016 he insisted the Senate should wait for the American people to elect the next president before confirming a Supreme Court justice—many Democrats called for expanding the number of high court justices as a possible solution.

In April, Common Dreams reported Democrats in the House and Senate introduced the Judiciary Act of 2021, a bill that, if passed, would expand the number of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court from nine to 13, a proposal backed by progressive advocacy groups as a crucial step in combating the conservative takeover of the high court and protecting key constitutional rights.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the lead Senate sponsor of the Judiciary Act, responded to McConnell's Monday remarks by tweeting that "we need to expand the Supreme Court."

In April, Biden signed an executive order authorizing the formation of a 36-member bipartisan group of experts to study possible Supreme Court reforms.

Labor advocates rebuke Amazon for latest 'smoke and mirrors' on worker safety

Labor advocates on Thursday responded with disdain and derision to news that Amazon and the National Safety Council are partnering to find "innovative solutions" to prevent the workplace injuries that disproportionately plague the retail giant's warehouse employees.

"The root cause of this issue is Amazon's business model of expecting workers to perform like robots at an unbearable and often unattainable pace of work." —Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU

Amazon said it plans to contribute $12 million to National Safety Council (NSC) research on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which the NSC says are the most common U.S. workplace injuries. Amazon's contribution will also help fund new technology to reduce MSDs.

Thursday's announcement follows a report published earlier this month by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) that accused Amazon of having an "abysmal health and safety record" as a result of its obsession with production speed. The report revealed there were 5.9 serious injuries per 100 Amazon workers last year—a rate that's about 80% higher than those of other warehousing industry employers.

In addition to rampant injuries, numerous worker deaths at Amazon warehouses in recent years have repeatedly landed the company in the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health's annual "Dirty Dozen" reports of the worst corporate workplace safety violators. The company has also come under fire and faces a New York state lawsuit for failing to adequately protect warehouse workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We know we have work to do," Amazon vice president of worldwide workplace health and safety Heather MacDougall said during a Wednesday news conference in Seattle.

Numerous critics of Amazon's labor practices dismissed the NSC partnership as a "public relations stunt." Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called it "more smoke and mirrors from Amazon."

"This isn't a pledge—it's a PR stunt," she tweeted.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), said in a statement that, "After spending years pushing warehouse workers to work beyond their physical limits, Amazon's announcement today appears to be just another public relations stunt. Instead, Amazon can and must be doing more to protect its workers."

"This partnership will be meaningless unless Amazon acknowledges and is transparent about workers' injuries and illness due to ergonomic issues at their facilities—something they have consistently failed to do," he added. "The root cause of this issue is Amazon's business model of expecting workers to perform like robots at an unbearable and often unattainable pace of work."

In a statement, SOC alleged that "Amazon executives have known about the company's serious injury problem for years, and have done nothing to fix it, allowing tens of thousands of additional workers to be injured. Now, after getting some bad press last week, the company wants us to believe that it has seen the light and will change its ways."

"No one should trust a corporation with such a terrible track record to reform itself," SOC added.

The Switzerland-based UNI Global Union tweeted that "all the wellness pods in the world won't change the fact that Amazon puts profits over health," a reference to the AmaZen "mindful practice rooms" the company is introducing in warehouses so that stressed-out workers to "recharge and re-energize."

UNI Global Union highlighted an article published in the Seattle Times Thursday that reported Amazon will not relax productivity targets for warehouse workers despite state regulators recently finding a "direct connection" between the rate of on-the-job injuries and the company's requirement that employees "maintain a very high pace of work."

55 corporations paying no federal tax last year spent $450 million on lobbying and campaigns: report

The 55 U.S. corporations that paid no federal corporate income tax last year have spent a combined $450 million on political campaign contributions and lobbying—including for lower taxes—according to a report published Wednesday by the progressive advocacy group Public Citizen.

"Using Uncle Sam's money to lobby against paying taxes is the perfect embodiment of how Washington works." —Mike Tanglis, Public Citizen

The report, entitled The Price of Zero, cites figures from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showing that at least 55 U.S. corporations avoided paying any corporate income tax in 2020 on a combined pretax income of $40.5 billion.

"Had these companies paid a tax rate of 21%—the current federal rate—they would have owed the federal government $8.5 billion," the report notes. "Not only did these companies not pay taxes, but nearly all also got money back from the government, receiving $3.5 billion in tax rebates, bringing the total 2020 tax giveaways for these 55 companies to $12 billion."

Instead of paying taxes, the companies invested a combined $408 million in lobbying and $42 million in campaign contributions over the past three election cycles, according to data obtained from the Center for Responsive Politics.

According to the report, FedEx spent the most of any of the 55 companies—$71 million on lobbying and campaign contributions—between 2015 and 2020. Charter Communications ($64 million), American Electric Power ($42 million), Duke Energy ($37 million), and Textron ($22 million) round out the top five spenders.

Forty-seven of the 55 companies analyzed in the paper reported spending on lobbying at some point during the five-year period. Thirty-five of those firms acknowledged lobbying specifically on taxation issues. Twenty-two of the companies lobbied for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), Republican legislation signed into law by former President Donald Trump.

The TCJA lowered the federal corporate income tax rate from 35% to 21%, enabled companies to write off certain capital investments for five years, and made it easier for U.S. corporations to avoid paying taxes on foreign income. Dubbed the "GOP tax scam" by opponents, the TCJA gave more than 80% of tax cuts to the nation's richest 1% while raising taxes on over 90 million middle-class families and encouraging the outsourcing of U.S.-based jobs.

"It's critical that the public understand that while paying nothing to support the upkeep of our government, these companies have been spending huge amounts of money to try to keep the game rigged in their favor." —Susan Harley, Public Citizen

Most of the 55 companies analyzed in the report have political action committees (PACs) they use to fund campaigns of candidates, elected officials, party groups, and outside organizations. Fourteen of the 55 companies spent more than $1 million each on such contributions. From the 2016 through the 2020 election cycles, the firms that spent the most on political contributions are: Charter Communications ($6.5 million), FedEx ($5.5 million), Duke Energy ($3.4 million), FirstEnergy ($3.3 million), and Textron ($1.7 million).

Although the leading beneficiary of the companies' largesse is a Democrat—Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, at $408,500—20 of the 25 top recipients are Republicans, all of whom voted for the TCJA.

"The lobbying, campaign contributions, and tax avoidance by these 55 companies is a never-ending cycle in which the companies spend to win tax breaks, then use the money saved from those breaks to try to get more," the report concludes. "The corporations keep winning while the American public loses."

Public Citizen research director and report author Mike Tanglis said in a statement that "using Uncle Sam's money to lobby against paying taxes is the perfect embodiment of how Washington works."

Susan Harley, managing director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division and co-editor of the report, said: "As Congress looks to pair incredibly important investments in jobs and families with tax changes to raise revenues, it is essential that, as part of that work, it addresses the loopholes that have allowed companies to pay nothing in federal corporate tax."

"In the meantime," she added, "it's critical that the public understand that while paying nothing to support the upkeep of our government, these companies have been spending huge amounts of money to try to keep the game rigged in their favor."

The 'Big Con' revealed: Report details the fossil fuel industry's deceptive 'net zero' strategy

A new report published Wednesday by a trio of progressive advocacy groups lifts the veil on so-called "net zero" climate pledges, which are often touted by corporations and governments as solutions to the climate emergency, but which the paper's authors argue are merely a dangerous form of greenwashing that should be eschewed in favor of Real Zero policies based on meaningful, near-term commitments to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

The report—titled "The Big Con: How Big Polluters Are Advancing a "Net Zero" Climate Agenda to Delay, Deceive, and Deny" (pdf)—was published by Corporate Accountability, the Global Forest Coalition, and Friends of the Earth International, and is endorsed by over 60 environmental organizations. The paper comes ahead of this November's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland and amid proliferating pledges from polluting corporations and governments to achieve what they claim is carbon neutrality—increasingly via dubious offsets—by some distant date, often the year 2050.

However, the report asserts that "instead of offering meaningful real solutions to justly address the crisis they knowingly created and owning up to their responsibility to act beginning with drastically reducing emissions at source, polluting corporations and governments are advancing 'net zero' plans that require little or nothing in the way of real solutions or real effective emissions cuts."

"Furthermore... they see the potential for a 'net zero' global pathway to provide new business opportunities for them, rather than curtailing production and consumption of their polluting products," it says.

According to the report:

After decades of inaction, corporations are suddenly racing to pledge to achieve "net zero" emissions. These include fossil fuel giants like BP, Shell, and Total; tech giants like Microsoft and Apple; retailers like Amazon and Walmart; financers like HSBC, Bank of America, and BlackRock; airlines like United and Delta; and food, livestock, and meat-producing and agriculture corporations like JBS, Nestlé, and Cargill. Polluting corporations are in a race to be the loudest and proudest to pledge "net zero" emissions by 2050 or some other date in the distant future. Over recent years, more than 1,500 corporations have made "net zero" commitments, an accomplishment applauded by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the U.N. Secretary-General.

"Increasingly, the concept of 'net zero' is being misconstrued in political spaces as well as by individual actors to evade action and avoid responsibility," the report states. "The idea behind big polluters' use of 'net zero' is that an entity can continue to pollute as usual—or even increase its emissions—and seek to compensate for those emissions in a number of ways. Emissions are nothing more than a math equation in these plans; they can be added one place and subtracted from another place."

"This equation is simple in theory but deeply flawed in reality," the paper asserts. "These schemes are being used to mask inaction, foist the burden of emissions cuts and pollution avoidance on historically exploited communities, and bet our collective future through ensuring long-term, destructive impact on land and forests, oceans, and through advancing geoengineering technologies. These technologies are hugely risky, do not exist at the scale supposedly needed, and are likely to cause enormous, and likely irreversible, damage."

Among the key findings of the report:

  • Big polluters, including the fossil fuel and aviation industries, lobbied heavily to ensure passage of Q45, a tax credit subsidizing carbon capture and storage. A 2020 report (pdf) from the U.S. Treasury Department's inspector general found that fossil fuel companies improperly claimed nearly $1 billion in Q45 credits.
  • The International Emissions Trading Association—described by the report's authors as "perhaps the largest global lobbyist on market and offsets, both pillars of polluters 'net zero' climate plans"—has leveraged its considerable power to push its greenwashing agenda at international climate talks.
  • Major polluters have contributed generously to universities including the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, and Imperial College London in an effort to influence "net zero"-related research. At Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project, ExxonMobil retained the right to formally review research before completion and was allowed to place corporate staff members on development teams.

"The best, most proven approach to justly addressing the climate crisis is to significantly reduce emissions now in an equitable manner, bringing them close to Real Zero by 2030 at the latest," the report states, referring to a situation in which no carbon emissions are produced by a good or service without the use of offsets. "The cross-sectoral solutions we need already exist, are proven, and are scalable now... All that is missing is the political will to advance them, in spite of industry obstruction and deflection."

"To avoid social and planetary collapse, [leaders] must heed the calls of millions of people around the globe and pursue policies that justly, equitably transition our economies off of fossil fuels, and advance real solutions that prioritize life—now." —Report

"People around the globe have already made their demands clear," the report says. "Meaningful solutions that can be implemented now are already detailed in platforms like the People's Demands for Climate Justice, the Liability Roadmap, the Energy Manifesto, and many other resources that encompass the wisdom of those on the frontlines of the climate crisis."

Sara Shaw, climate justice and energy program co-coordinator at Friends of the Earth International and one of the paper's authors, said "this report shows that 'net zero' plans from big polluters are nothing more than a big con. The reality is that corporations like Shell have no interest in genuinely acting to solve the climate crisis by reducing their emissions from fossil fuels. They instead plan to continue business as usual while greenwashing their image with tree planting and offsetting schemes that can never ever make up for digging up and burning fossil fuels."

"We must wake up fast to the fact that we are falling for a trick," Shaw added. "'Net zero' risks obscuring a lack of action until it is too late."

Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development—which endorsed the report—warned that "proclamations of 'net zero' targets are dangerous deceptions. 'Net zero' sounds ambitious and visionary but it actually allows big polluters and rich governments to continue emitting [greenhouse gases] which they claim will be erased through unproven and dangerous technologies, carbon trading, and offsets that shift the burden of climate action to the Global South."

"Big polluters and rich governments should not only reduce emissions to Real Zero, they must pay reparations for the huge climate debt owed to the Global South," added Nacpil.

In conclusion, the reports says world leaders must "listen to the people and once and for all prioritize people's lives and the planet over engines of profit and destruction."

"To avoid social and planetary collapse," it states, "they must heed the calls of millions of people around the globe and pursue policies that justly, equitably transition our economies off of fossil fuels, and advance real solutions that prioritize life—now."


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