Independent Media Institute

How the Build Back Better bill would save workers’ lives

When Ron Brady drives through highway construction zones, he makes a point of looking for safety violations that threaten workers’ lives.

He’s seen more and more of them the past few years as employers, emboldened by the weakened state of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), grew increasingly comfortable flouting the rules.

Funding and staffing shortages engineered by the previous presidential administration hobbled OSHA and put workers in numerous industries at risk. But now, Congress is poised to pass a bill that would help revitalize the agency and provide the resources needed to protect workers in a growing economy.

Along with many other provisions helping workers and their families, the Build Back Better legislation recently approved by the House would position OSHA to respond to more work sites, investigate additional complaints and proactively address a greater number of hazards.

“They’ve been woefully understaffed for a long time,” observed Brady, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14614, which represents about 1,200 workers in the chemical, construction, gaming, manufacturing and other industries in West Virginia.

“They’re very professional,” he said of OSHA inspectors. “I’ve always found them to be very well trained. I think a lot of them are frustrated. They don’t have the resources to really do the job. There simply aren’t enough of them to cover it.”

The number of OSHA inspectors fell to the lowest level in half a century in 2019, and the agency conducted fewer investigations into top hazards like chemical exposure and musculoskeletal risks, as the previous president deliberately undercut the agency to benefit corporations.

Brady maintained a close watch on his members’ safety.

But in recent years, he said, he’s seen other construction workers navigate high beams without fall protection and risk their lives in work zones lacking the proper signage. And he knows that the starving of OSHA also put workers in other industries at higher risk.

“Everybody’s cutting corners and cutting budgets and trying to do more with fewer people. It’s something that’s going to get worse and worse,” Brady said.

After taking office in January 2021, President Joe Biden quickly took steps to put OSHA back on course. He filled key vacancies and appointed proven, experienced advocates to top leadership positions. But more is needed to reenergize the agency’s mission of prevention and deterrence.

The Build Back Better legislation, now before the Senate, would help Biden realize his goal of doubling the number of inspectors, to about 1,500, while also empowering the agency to impose significantly higher fines, as high as $700,000 per willful violation in some cases, on employers who flout safety rules.

The bigger penalties are needed to deter safety lapses. Brady said the current low fines merely encourage employers to gamble with workers’ lives.

The additional resources provided through the Build Back Better bill would also enable OSHA to focus on other kinds of prevention, like development of national standards to protect workers against growing and emerging threats.

After a combustible dust incident killed a colleague in 2015, for example, workers at the former International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, New York, and the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Department worked with OSHA and the company to implement new safety measures intended to ensure no tragedy like that ever happened again.

But workers worried about their counterparts at other facilities across the U.S. who remained vulnerable, and they looked for OSHA to implement industry-wide safeguards.

They’re still waiting.

OSHA began working on a combustible dust standard even before the tragedy at Ticonderoga underscored the need for it. But the agency shelved the project during the previous administration because of “resource constraints and other priorities.”

“If there was a combustible dust standard, everyone would have rules to follow,” explained Paul Shaffer, president of USW Local 005, which represents workers at the paper mill, now owned by Sylvamo.

“It would make work much safer for everybody in the industry,” he said, noting standards both raise awareness and spell out the steps employers are required to take to keep workers safe. “You can’t protect against something you don’t know about.”

Combustible dust is just one threat requiring OSHA’s attention. Workers also need national standards to help protect them from heat stress—a growing danger because of climate change—as well as infectious diseases and workplace violence. Without OSHA specifying the safeguards employers must take and holding them accountable, observed Shaffer, workers and unions “spend a lot of time trying to get companies to do what’s right.”

It’s essential to strengthen OSHA as the nation prepares to carry out the historic, $1 trillion package of infrastructure investments that Biden signed into law in November.

Upgrades to roads and bridges, airports, locks and dams, energy systems and communications networks will sustain millions of middle-class jobs, benefiting construction workers as well as workers who produce the raw materials, parts and components needed for infrastructure projects.

Those workers will rely on OSHA to respond to complaints, inspect work sites and take other measures needed to keep them safe.

Brady recalls the days when OSHA inspectors regularly visited job sites and looks forward to a time when they once again not only respond to complaints but also make spot checks to provide safe and healthy workplaces.

“It makes management more safety-conscious,” he said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How Portland’s activists are bringing mutual aid to the homeless

Steven Stroud says when he was released from prison in 2020, where he’d wound up due to becoming addicted to doctor-prescribed opioids and eventually heroin, the Portland, Oregon, streets where he grew up had changed. The pandemic had shut down most of the already sparse jobs he would have potentially been able to pursue, and he ended up without work or a place to live.

Stroud spoke in an interview with Greg Bennick posted on SoundCloud in November 2021 about how people living on the streets in Portland now had to contend with a near-constant militarized police presence, which developed in response to the city’s Black Lives Matter protests (Note: the interview also details Stroud’s youth as a skinhead, and how he eventually left this hate-filled existence behind and spent a period of time speaking out and educating people against white supremacist groups). Stroud shares in the interview that he met Bennick when a few people walking past noticed him and handed him a sandwich. These were volunteers with the Portland Mutual Aid Network (PMAN), which was formed in 2020 by a group of friends who noticed the impact of police on houseless residents of the city while participating in the Black Lives Matter protests.

Stroud’s progression toward experiencing homelessness is sadly not all too unique in the U.S. Homelessness was already a serious issue, and increasing in many places across the U.S. prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic and physical stresses of the pandemic particularly in 2020 compounded many of the issues that typically lead to homelessness, including unemployment and strain on access to basic resources.

The risks and stresses to people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic increase during winter, particularly in damp, cold areas like the Pacific Northwest. Exposure to the elements can mean hypothermia and sometimes death for people experiencing homelessness.

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In response to this reality, PMAN is collaborating with a number of other community volunteers and mutual aid groups on a winter drive effort to collect tents, sleeping bags and other gear to support neighbors experiencing homelessness. Several Portland businesses have signed onto the effort as drop-off locations.

One such business is the sandwich restaurant and pub Bunk Bar, where Kelsey Anderson, a kitchen manager, says she feels fortunate to work with people who share her interest in supporting underserved communities via mutual aid efforts. She notes that everything brought into any of the drop-off sites “is sorted and distributed directly into the hands and homes of people who have a need for it by other working-class people, almost immediately.”

“We believe caring for each other and supporting people while in a system that pits us against each other is an inherently important and radical act,” she says. “This is particularly clear in the cold months and whilst still in the throes of a pandemic. I want people to understand their contributions to this drive can save a life. Every winter, humans in Portland and all over the country are abandoned outside, and there is absolutely no—absolutely no—justification for that.”

She notes that many mutual aid groups and organizers have collaborated on winter drive efforts recently to support and work with neighbors living outdoors.

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“I hope more people will begin to see people who live outdoors as their neighbors, and as people that have just as much value as anyone else in their lives, instead of possibly someone they think they can’t relate to,” she says. “I’d like to encourage people to try and meet their outdoor neighbors, to do their own clothes drives, to feel free and emboldened to work in their communities with people that live in them. ‘Social solidarity not charity’ is a commonly used phrase when discussing mutual aid. We are caring for each other as an equal community, instead of relying on top-down organized philanthropy that can tend to ostracize.”

A volunteer with PMAN who has participated in mutual aid efforts for 30 years and asked to remain anonymous said they do so because the official systems in place to support people are inadequate.

“We need to be organizing as community members to [support] ourselves,” they said. “[PMAN] started in early June of 2020 in order to support downtown Portland houseless people who were being assaulted by police response to protesters. We had been going downtown participating in the protests and one night handed two men on the street a banana and a bottle of water while we were retreating from a tear gas attack. We stopped and talked to them, and heard what they were facing nightly, and asked what they needed.”

The interaction, they say, caused a shift in the focus of their activism, from primarily participating in the protests to taking direct action on the behalf of those in need. That day, a regular mission to support people living on the streets started, and it has stayed consistent each week since, the volunteer said.

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“The city government in Portland pays good lip service to supporting houseless initiatives, but realistically what they support is sweeping people off the streets and making sure that they are not seen, heard, or endured,” the volunteer said.

“It would be an exaggeration to suggest that there are no services available, but it would be entirely accurate that these services are the pieces and scraps left behind after a system rooted in profit and advancement has had their fill at the table.”

The volunteer said this is part of why mutual aid is not only helpful but necessary.

“Mutual aid is inherently political, and inherently socially driven,” they said. “If we wait for protection from the police, we won’t get it. If we wait for salvation from the government, we won’t get it. And if we wait for solutions from the failed system in place, we won’t get it.… Think of mutual aid as action plus solidarity-based support networks which are community-driven. The core tenet is of uniting with, supporting, and upholding those who otherwise would have to fend for themselves, and instead doing it together, on the terms of those who are oppressed.”

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They note that in preparation for winter, Portland’s many mutual aid groups are actively gathering hats, gloves, hand warmers, sleeping bags, blankets, coats, tents and scarves. If someone wants to get involved in their local mutual aid efforts, the volunteer says the best thing to do is to look up the mutual aid groups nearby, and assess “which speaks to them in terms of the work they are doing and how people want to get involved.”

“Ours is a small but very consistent group,” the volunteer said. “Other groups are larger and more thorough in their areas of focus. If people want to support what we are doing, they can read more about mutual aid and about us at our Instagram @portlandmutualaid or via the web at portlandmutualaidnetwork.com. We can direct people to other groups if they are interested in aspects of community work where we aren’t currently focused.”

If someone wanted to start a mutual aid group, the volunteer says step one would be to assess need around them.

“Step two is to further determine the people you will work for and why, and the people you will work with,” they said. “Step three is to strategize on the terms of the people you are working for. You are not doing charity. You are trying to rebuild and build alternatives to the systems in place which are failing otherwise.… Let others—specifically those you work for—speak and be heard. We can easily fall into an unfortunate narrative rooted in comfort and privilege when we stop listening… Mutual aid is constantly in flux and flow, but directed toward cooperation. Charity is one-way. Mutual aid is an experience of solidarity.”

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April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Democratic Party is missing a big opportunity to learn from FDR's success

There was a time when Democrats called their party “the Party of Freedom.”

Largely because of the horrors of the Republican Great Depression, Americans realized that, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his 1944 State of the Union address, “Necessitous men are not free men.”

You can’t disentangle economics from liberty. Which is why Democrats have proclaimed since the 1930s that:

  • If you’re hungry and don’t have access to food, you’re not free.
  • If you can’t afford decent housing and therefore don’t have a safe place to live, you’re not free.
  • If you’re out of work and can’t support yourself or your family, you’re not free.
  • If you’re sick and can’t afford medical treatment, you’re not free.
  • If you live in fear of right-wing terrorism because of your religion or the color of your skin, you’re not free.
  • And if you have the inherent capability to be a scientist or union electrician but can’t afford college or trade school to reach your potential, you’re not free.

Instead, as FDR said in the next sentence of that speech:

"People who are hungry, people who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

It’s time for the Democratic Party to begin messaging like FDR did.

The debates today around infrastructure, Build Back Better, voting rights and ending the filibuster are not separate things: they all represent Democratic efforts to expand freedom that has been eroded by forty years of “conservative” policies.

And, indeed, historians tie Reagan’s gutting of union rights and impoverishing the American middle class directly to the upsurge of today’s hateful white supremacist movement. For two generations now, Republican politicians have promoted the lie that working white people weren’t getting poorer because of Reagan’s tax-cuts-for-the-rich and “free trade” policies, but because of the “Great Replacement Theory” Tucker Carlson promotes that claims Jews are helping “Black immigrants and illegals” take white people’s best jobs.

For most of our history conservatives have promoted the interests of slaveholders, big property owners, big business, and big money, while progressives have promoted the interests of freedom for average working people.

With the 1920 election Warren Harding won the presidency on a platform of tax cuts for the rich (from 90% down to 25%), deregulation of business, and privatization of government functions. All of which led directly to the Crash of 1929 and the Republican Great Depression.

Thus, when FDR took the White House in the GOP’s economic wreckage in 1933, he positioned the Democratic Party solidly in the progressive camp and proclaimed a new era of freedom in America.

Virtually every program of the New Deal from labor rights to Social Security, was, Roosevelt said, designed to protect and expand American freedoms.

By 1936, FDR had succeeded in completely rebranding the Democratic Party as the “Party of Freedom.” When he accepted the Party’s nomination for a second term in Philadelphia, he laid it out clearly.

“That very word freedom,” he thundered to the giant hall, “in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power.
“[I]t was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought.”

But, FDR pointed out, with the industrial revolution came a massive accumulation of wealth and political power in the hands of a very, very few. And that meant the freedom of average working people was now under attack by a new type of American tyranny.

“Since that struggle, however, man's inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution - all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.”

The rise of big business — he called them “economic royalists” — and their alliance with the Republican Party was, FDR said, a challenge that required a frontal assault on behalf of freedom for working class Americans.

“For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital — all undreamed of by the Fathers — the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service. …
“Throughout the nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.”

While fascism was rising in Europe, another type of tyranny was overtaking America, driven by bankers and industrialists who controlled vast wealth and political power.

If you lived under the thumb of an employer who refused decent pay and benefits, and you lacked the legal political power to join a union, you were not free.

“Liberty requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
“For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor — other people's lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.”

Which is where most Americans found themselves under the ravages of raw, unregulated capitalism. We had lost our freedom, and the Democratic Party was taking an explicit stand to restore it.

“Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair,” FDR said, calling out the morbidly rich oligarchs of his day and the Republican politicians who sucked up to them.

Like Nikki Hailey calling Democrats “socialists” on Twitter this weekend in a pathetic effort to ingratiate herself with rightwing billionaires, Republican politicians in the 1930s and 1940s called FDR everything from a socialist and a communist to an all-out tyrant.

But he threw it right back into their faces. His agenda, he said, was freedom.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.
“In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”

When the GOP accused Roosevelt of being that day’s equivalent of a “bleeding heart liberal,” he proudly wore that badge. After all, in the finest American tradition, he and his Democratic Party were fighting for the freedom of all Americans:

“We do not see faith, hope, and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization.”

It was under the banner of “freedom” that FDR accomplished so much of his agenda. Democrats today must do the same.

  • Build Back Better enhances the freedom of working-class Americans by providing a floor through which they won’t fall as they strive for economic success.
  • Ending or changing the filibuster to put voting rights into place ensures democracy — the essential bulwark of freedom — to citizens of every state, even those that Republicans are trying to turn into rightwing oligarchies.
  • Cancelling student debt and providing low-cost healthcare to all Americans frees young people from crushing financial burdens that are not experienced by the citizens of any other developed democracy in the world.
  • Vaccine and mask mandates slow or even (when fully implemented) stop the spread of this Covid pandemic, and thus are an explicit part of a “freedom agenda”: the freedom to take your kid to school, go to a restaurant or theater, or shop for groceries without fear of death and disease.

There are, of course, elected Democrats who oppose many of these things. Given the stakes of today, it’s not hyperbole to call them traitors to the Democratic Party specifically and the cause of freedom in America more generally.

In 1940, a faction that today we’d call “corporate problem solver Democrats” tried to hijack the party and force FDR to repudiate progressive Henry Wallace for a more “moderate” VP in the election that year. He was having no part of it.

“In the century in which we live,” FDR wrote, “the Democratic Party has received the support of the electorate only when the party, with absolute clarity, has been the champion of progressive and liberal policies and principles of government.”

After all, if they were the party of freedom then how could they possibly sell out to the “economic royalists” who were making common cause with the GOP?

You’re either a progressive party, FDR said, or you’re not: you can’t be both, and when you try to straddle that fence you will lose elections more often than not.

"The party has failed consistently,” he wrote to his party’s leaders, “when through political trading and chicanery it has fallen into the control of those interests, personal and financial, which think in terms of dollars instead of in terms of human values.”

If the Democratic Party is not all about freedom, he said, it can’t be distinguished from the GOP, which actively fights against freedom for all but the wealthy, and will fail.

“Until the Democratic Party through this convention makes overwhelmingly clear its stand in favor of social progress and liberalism, and shakes off all the shackles of control fastened upon it by the forces of conservatism, reaction, and appeasement, it will not continue its march of victory.”

Summarizing, FDR wrote to his party leaders:

“It is best not to straddle ideals. … It is best for America to have the fight out here and now. … The party must go wholly one way or wholly the other. It cannot face in both directions at the same time.”

In the name of triangulation, political strategy, and big-tent-ism the modern Democratic Party has seen itself repeatedly sabotaged from within.

First it was Bill Clinton’s embrace of Reagan’s corporate “free trade” and his proclaiming “an end to welfare as we know it” while killing off the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program put into place in 1936 by FDR.

Then came Joe Lieberman’s taking over a million dollars from the insurance industry to gut Obamacare of a public option during the single 74-day window Obama had with a filibuster-proof senate in his entire presidency.

And, of course, there’s today’s crisis with Manchin and Sinema blocking filibuster reform and the so-called “corporate problem solvers” caucus in both the House and Senate working like termites to undermine or co-opt any successful progressive legislation.

If the Democratic Party is to once again be the party of freedom, its leadership must take a stand like FDR did in 1940 when he defied the power-brokers and wealth-toadies in his own party.

Its members must sign onto the freedom crusade, and the party must actively work, through the upcoming primaries, to purge itself of those who are only in office to get rich or enjoy their moment of fame.

And, most important, the Democratic Party must reclaim “freedom” as its banner. For Americans, freedom is not only a sacred right and duty, but it’s also the ultimate political marketing tool…and it’s past time for Democrats to take it back and claim it as their own.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of The Hidden History of American Healthcare and more than 30+ other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute and his writings are archived at hartmannreport.com.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Progressives sweep 2021 municipal elections across Georgia

Georgia’s 2021 municipal runoff elections saw dozens of progressives elected as new mayors, city council members and local officials in a wave that challenges the political narrative that only centrists can win in Southern battleground states, according to several organizers of voter outreach efforts.

“Last night proves two things,” said Ray McClendon, the Atlanta NAACP’s political action chair, speaking a day after the November 30 municipal runoff elections. “One, it proves the value of the grassroots relational organizing that we’re doing. And two, it explodes the myth of what the national narrative is about a progressive capacity for victories.”

“In other words, progressives are not the problem,” said Andrea Miller, executive director of the Center for Common Ground, whose tools for finding and informing Black voters were used by the NAACP and its allies in the runoffs, as well as in Virginia’s recent statewide elections where they led to some of that state’s highest voter turnout in communities she targeted.

McClendon and Miller made their remarks during a Zoom briefing that discussed a new e-book, “The Georgia Way: How to Win Elections,” which McClendon co-authored. The e-book is an oral history of the bottom-up organizing that turned out infrequent voters from communities of color to vote in its 2020 elections. Voting Booth’s Steven Rosenfeld is also a co-author.

The organizers’ approach combines the use of cutting-edge digital analytics and voter contact tools with “relational organizing,” which emphasizes listening to overlooked people’s concerns, helping with their upward mobility, and then asking them to register and vote. Both McClendon and Miller said that this strategy’s impact in 2021’s elections was a template for 2022’s midterm elections.

“We suddenly find a community that [reportedly] doesn’t vote with 18 percent early voting turnout among the Black voters,” Miller said, referring to the center’s recent targeted outreach in Virginia’s 2021 elections. “In Fairfax County, which is in northern Virginia, [the region prioritized by the state Democratic Party’s campaign ads,] the early voting turnout [among Black voters] was 8.77 percent.”

The victories of progressives across Georgia have been slowly recognized by the state’s media. Georgia’s most influential newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, initially characterized the runoffs’ results as a bad day for incumbents rather than voters embracing progressives.

“Holders of political offices across metro Atlanta didn’t like what they saw Tuesday night after runoff votes were counted,” began the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s report on December 1. That report noted, however, that in South Fulton, the state’s eighth most populous city, that Khalid Kamau, a “prominent Democratic Socialist… got 59 percent of the vote.”

On December 2, the paper noted that two city council members with a combined “four-and-a-half decades of experience” on the panel “were ousted Tuesday by younger, more progressive challengers.” (One victor, 34-year-old Antonio Lewis, is among the activists featured in “The Georgia Way.”)

Lewis defeated four-term incumbent Joyce Sheperd, 69, who told the paper that Tuesday’s results across the city were “part of a paradigm shift.”

McClendon added that November 30’s municipal election results were part of a wider trend across Georgia, which reflected the state’s changing electoral demographics. He noted that in 2016, Republican Donald Trump won the state’s presidential election by about 211,000 votes; in 2018, Republican Brian Kemp was elected governor by about 55,000 votes; but in 2020, Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump by more than 12,000 votes, and two Democrats were elected to the Senate in January 2021’s runoffs. (Kemp’s 2018 opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, announced her 2022 candidacy for governor one day after 2021’s municipal elections.)

“We have, first of all, elected a very progressive new [Atlanta] mayor… Andre Dickens,” said McClendon. “We also have turned over a substantial number of city council seats that will make the council more progressive and more prone toward action. And then across the state, the state has elected first-time Black mayors.”

McClendon cited the mayoral elections of Cosby Johnson in Brunswick (where Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, was killed by white vigilantes); LaRhonda Patrick in Warner Robins; and Sandra Vincent in McDonough. He noted that Vincent was elected in the city that was home to the former governor and U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge, who was a staunch segregationist.

“Over 50 municipal seats flipped to progressives in the most recent cycle,” McClendon said. “This completely debunks the national narrative that there is not a [progressive] movement afoot… And what we need to do is get the word out that when you do bottom-up, relational organizing with a digital strategy like the Center for Common Ground[’s tools], we can make major inroads. So, ‘The Georgia Way’ is really a blueprint that we can build on.”

(To hear more about “The Georgia Way” and its impacts in 2020 and 2021, see a recording of the December 1 Zoom briefing.)

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Why Amazon is terrified of its U.S. workers unionizing

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has just ruled that a historic union vote held earlier this year among Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was not valid. The highly publicized vote, which took place over several weeks in February and March 2021, resulted in a resounding defeat for the union, with more than 70 percent of those voting choosing against union membership.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, accused Amazon of engaging in “efforts to gaslight its own employees,” and filed a petition in April to nullify the vote. After investigating the union’s assertion, the NLRB decided that Amazon interfered so blatantly in its workers’ ability to vote that a second election is now in order.

The ruling detailed how, in spite of the NLRB denying Amazon’s request to install a mail collection box right outside the warehouse entrance, the company did so anyway, giving workers the impression that it was involved in the vote counting. Additionally, the company distributed “vote no” paraphernalia to workers in the presence of managers, forcing them to declare their support of or opposition to the union. And, Amazon held what the NLRB called “captive audience meetings” with small groups of workers, “six days a week, 18 hours a day,” in order to blast the approximately 6,000 employees who were eligible to vote with anti-union messaging over the course of the voting period.

An NLRB regional director, Lisa Henderson, who made the decision for a second vote, denounced Amazon’s “flagrant disregard” for ensuring a free and fair election and said the company “essentially hijacked the process and gave a strong impression that it controlled the process.”

It’s no wonder that the election turnout was low and that ultimately only about 12 percent of eligible voters cast ballots choosing to unionize.

Anticipating the NLRB decision to allow a second vote, the company has already begun paving the way for interference once more. According to a Reuters report in early November, “Amazon has ramped up its campaign at the warehouse, forcing thousands of employees to attend meetings, posting signs critical of labor groups in bathrooms, and flying in staff from the West Coast.”

This aggressive and repeated pushback by one of the world’s largest employers against a unionizing effort at a single warehouse in the United States is an indication of Amazon’s absolute determination to deny workers a say in their labor conditions. Kelly Nantel, a company spokesperson, said that workers don’t need a union because they benefit from a “direct relationship” with their employer—a laughable notion considering the unbalanced power dynamic between the behemoth retailer and any one of its nearly 1 million U.S. employees.

So invested is the company in maintaining a union-free workplace that the NLRB in a separate decision determined that Amazon illegally fired two employees last year who were agitating against its unfair labor practices.

There is an obvious reason why Amazon has opted to respond so aggressively to unionization efforts in the United States. Its European workers are unionized and are actively demanding better wages and working conditions. For example, in Germany, unionized Amazon workers walked off their jobs for higher pay in November during the peak holiday shopping season. Last year, Italian workers went on strike for 11 days to win an extra five-minute break to ensure good hygiene in light of the pandemic. And, in the spring of 2020, French unions demanded that Amazon suspend all activity at its warehouses in the interest of worker safety during the early months of the pandemic. A French court ruled favorably, saying that the company had to suspend deliveries of all nonessential items.

Further, union leaders and unionized workers from various European nations began collaborating with one another last year in what Business Insider called an effort to “swap notes… on how to pressure the retail giant to improve their working conditions.”

This sort of European union activity and cross-border worker solidarity is exactly the type of scenario that Amazon does not want to see replicated in the United States.

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos responded to the Bessemer vote in April saying that he would ensure his company became “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work,” the RWDSU took it as an admission that Amazon has indeed been mistreating its workers.

Indeed, there have been numerous studies detailing mistreatment. One investigation by the New York Times earlier this year at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, warehouse found that the company churned through workers with an extremely high employee turnover rate. The paper also found that although managers keep careful track of nearly every conceivable aspect of how quickly employees work, their efficiency and productivity, there were apparently few records, if any, of worker health including COVID-19 infections.

At the same time that the Bessemer warehouse workers were being bombarded with anti-union propaganda, the company was practically minting money with record profits from a greater dependence on online shopping during the pandemic. Profits jumped 220 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period a year earlier.

The NLRB ruling for a do-over vote at the Bessemer warehouse comes at a time when American workers are increasingly intolerant of poor labor conditions and low wages. A wave of strikes this fall and mass resignations have also impacted Amazon’s ability to hire more workers. Now, in addition to the RWDSU, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has vowed to engage in organizing efforts aimed at Amazon and passed a historic resolution this summer in response to how “Amazon poses an existential threat to the rights and standards our members have fought for and won.”

Still, Amazon’s aggressive efforts at maintaining union-free operations in the United States have continued to bear fruit. In addition to rolling out more anti-union efforts ahead of the second vote at its Bessemer warehouse, Amazon appears to have prevailed against another unionization effort—at the Staten Island warehouse that the New York Times investigated. Just two weeks ahead of an NLRB hearing on whether there was sufficient interest to form a union there, workers mysteriously withdrew their petition.

A Reuters study of 20 years of wage data for the retail industry found a clear and growing advantage for unionized workers compared to non-union workers, with the weekly wage gap between the two groups increasing from $20 in 2013 to $50 in 2019. The outlet explained that “unionized workers tend to work more hours per week and on a predictable schedule, while non-union workers often have a ‘variable schedule’ that depends on how busy management thinks the store might be.” In other words, the rights of non-union workers are subservient to the company’s well-being.

Perhaps this is what Nantel meant by the benefits of having a “direct relationship” with workers. Except, she claimed such a relationship was in the interest of workers, when in truth it is in the interest of employers like Amazon to have no collective power to wrestle against.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How Oregon is turning the page on America’s disastrous drug war

In a groundbreaking move, in 2020, Oregon voters approved the decriminalization of personal use amounts of all illicit drugs, with Measure 110 passing with a healthy 59 percent of the vote. That made Oregon the first state in the U.S. to make this dramatic break after decades of the war on drugs. Now, as other states are pondering a similar move and are looking for evidence to bolster their case for drug decriminalization, some of the initial results in Oregon are looking pretty impressive and promising.

Measure 110 promised not only thousands of fewer drug arrests but also a move away from a punitive system to a more compassionate one, with hundreds of millions of dollars for “greatly [expanded] access to evidence-informed drug treatment, peer support, housing, and harm reduction services, without raising taxes,” according to a November 2020 press release from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). These services would be funded through “excess marijuana tax revenue” (more than $45 million) and savings accrued “from no longer arresting, incarcerating, and prosecuting people for drug possession,” said the press release. State analysts in June 2020 estimated the excess marijuana tax revenue alone would result in more than $100 million in funding for providing services in the first year, after the implementation of Measure 110—which went into effect in February 2021—and would further result in funding of up to $129 million by 2027.

The state analysts were, however, too cautious. On November 3—“the one-year anniversary of the passage of Measure 110”—the DPA, whose political action arm, Drug Policy Action, spearheaded the successful campaign to get the drug reform measure passed, and the Health Justice Recovery Alliance (HJRA), the DPA’s key implementation partner in the state—which is working to implement treatment, harm reduction, and support programs—announced that they had secured funding of $302 million “for services over the next two years.” That’s more than $150 million a year, the DPA press release announced, “including $30 million lawmakers agreed to release ahead of schedule in May of [2021].” It is also “five times more than what Oregon currently spends on non-Medicaid funding for addiction services,” according to HJRA.

On November 17, that funding got real, with the Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council announcing the opening of a grant proposal period to distribute $270 million of the funding to service providers, who will operate under the rubric of the new Behavioral Health Resource Networks (BHRNs). Grants will be going to groups working on a broad spectrum of substance-related concerns, including housing, peer support, and employment support, as well as harm reduction and drug treatment services.

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“Our vision is that by funding BHRNs, there will be a collaboration of networks that include culturally and linguistically specific and responsive, trauma-informed and gender affirming care that will meet the needs of anyone seeking services who have been negatively affected by substance use and the war on drugs,” said Oversight and Accountability Tri-Chair LaKeesha Dumas in a press release by the Oregon Health Authority announcing the grants.

That initial round of grants went to 70 organizations in 26 out of the state’s 36 counties, with these results cited in a DPA press release on November 3:

  • “33 harm reduction and addiction recovery service providers expanded access to treatment services for indigent, uninsured individuals.”
  • “52 organizations hired peer support specialists—a role that addiction medicine experts have long heralded as essential to one’s recovery journey.”
  • “32 service providers added recovery, supportive and transitional housing services.”
  • “30 organizations increased harm reduction services, which include life-saving interventions like overdose prevention; access to naloxone, methadone and buprenorphine; as well as drug education and outreach.”

“We were about to have to close our doors in Wasco County, which would have been devastating to the people that depend on us for support there, but thanks to Measure 110 passing, we were not only able to get the funding we needed to stay open, but also to expand the services and spectrum of care we were able to provide our clients,” said Monta Knudson, executive director of Bridges to Change, a nonprofit that offers peer recovery support, housing and treatment services in Oregon, in the November 3 DPA press release.

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“Addiction has touched us all somehow, some more personally and heartbreakingly than others,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, in the DPA press release. “Too many of us have lost loved ones to addiction, or struggled with it ourselves. COVID-19 has made things much worse, decreasing access to care during a time when Oregonians need these services more than ever before. That’s why today, exactly one year after the Measure’s passage, we celebrate the great strides made when it comes to addressing Oregon’s addiction crisis, while recognizing that there’s still much work to be done. Our immediate focus is to ensure every Oregonian knows these critical harm reduction and recovery services are being invested in and expanded so that they will be available to anyone who wants and needs them, and that they can feel comfortable and safe accessing them.”

But while the huge expansion of treatment, harm reduction, and related social services is undeniably a good thing, drug decriminalization is ultimately about getting people out of the criminal justice system and ensuring that they are not sucked into it in the first place. It’s looking like Measure 110 is achieving that goal.

According to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, there were roughly between 9,000 and 10,000 drug arrests per year from 2012 to 2018, prior to the passage of Measure 110, and while it is too early to have precise numbers, thousands of Oregonians who would have been arrested for drug possession in 2021 have instead faced only their choice of a $100 fine or a health assessment. This doesn’t mean that there will be no arrests at all, though, because some felony drug possession arrests (possession of more than the specified personal use amounts) have been downgraded to still arrestable misdemeanors. There will, however, be thousands fewer people subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system and all the negative consequences that brings.

Preliminary numbers reported by the Oregonian suggest that drug arrests in 2021 are occurring at a rate of about 200 a month, primarily for possessing more than a personal use quantity of a drug. If that rate holds throughout the year, we should see a dramatic reduction in overall arrests, down from 9,000 (in the latest-reported 2018 data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission) to fewer than 2,500. And most of the people being arrested are now facing misdemeanors instead of felony charges.

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“A year ago, Oregonians voted yes on Measure 110 to remove criminal penalties for possession of drugs and expand access to health services. Now, because of this measure, there are thousands of people in Oregon that will never have to experience the devastating life-long barriers of having a drug arrest on their record, which disproportionately and unjustly affected Black and Indigenous people due to targeted policing,” said DPA Executive Director Kassandra Frederique in the press release. “Because of this measure, there is more than $300 million in funding that did not exist before being funneled into community organizations to provide adequate and culturally competent care that people desperately need. And while the devastation of 50 years of cruel and counterproductive policies can’t be erased overnight, by all metrics we hoped to achieve, and what voters asked for, we are going down the right path.”

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet’s coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance’s Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

How community schools are helping a hard-hit city dig out of tough times

Days after the GE Transportation plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, announced a round of crippling layoffs in 2013, an employee was found hanging from a crane in “Building 20,” according to the Erie Times-News. The image of a dead worker dangling from a crane in a dying factory seemed symbolic of a city going ever deeper into the depths of despair.

GE Transportation, once the largest employer in the county, has been shedding jobs for years, dropping from 20,000 workers, who were employed when the company was at its peak, to 3,000 in January 2017 after it “laid off 1,500 of its remaining 4,500 workers,” according to Yahoo News. Other plants in Erie—Hammermill Paper Company, a paper mill; Lord Corporation, a maker of industrial coatings, adhesives, motion management devices, and sensing technologies; and Zurn, a plumbing equipment manufacturer—were also shedding jobs or closing completely, according to a 2018 Associated Press article that appeared in the Pennsylvania newspaper the Morning Call. The layoffs and shutdowns affected blue-collar and white-collar workers alike.

As good-paying jobs left Erie, families increasingly left the local schools. By the 2016-2017 school year, the district estimated its schools were 5,000 students below capacity, reported the Erie Times-News, which meant less money was coming into the district from the state, compounding the district’s long-standing funding deprivation from the state—among the lowest in Pennsylvania, according to the Erie City School District’s assessment.

Asking local taxpayers to dig deeper was not an option in a city where almost 28 percent of residents lived below the poverty level, the median home value was significantly below the state average, and an abundance of government-related buildings made almost a third of the real estate tax-exempt.

Erie’s school district was also bleeding money to an expanding charter school sector, one of the largest in the state. In the 2015-2016 school year alone, Erie paid more than $22 million to charter schools.

Students remaining in district schools tended to be the ones who were the costliest to teach. In a 2016 report using data from the 2014-2015 school year, 80 percent of Erie K-12 students were classified as poor, and 17.6 percent qualified for special education services. The district was also in the top 3 percent among Pennsylvania school districts for the number of English language learners.

By 2016, the combination of the cratering local economy with declining school revenues had resulted in the district accumulating a debt load of $9.5 million in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Erie Times-News.

So dire were Erie’s financial straits that in 2016, the then district superintendent, Jay Badams, went to the state legislature in Harrisburg, NPR reported, and threatened to close the district’s high schools unless the state came up with emergency funding.

When I interviewed Badams in 2017, he told me his startling proposal was an “ethical decision,” because the more affluent school districts that Erie students would transfer to were more generously funded and offered richer learning opportunities.

Shortly after our conversation, Badams announced he would leave the district at the start of the 2017-2018 school year, partially due to his frustrations with funding. But before he left, he put into place two innovations that would help pull the district out of its nosedive.

First, a fiscal rescue package that included state emergency funding and a plan to consolidate schools resulted in the district rebounding from a deficit to a budget surplus of nearly $714,000 going into the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Erie Times-News.

The second innovation would take longer to bear fruit but would nevertheless show how public schools can be a rallying point for communities traumatized by wrenching change.

‘A Greater Sense of Hope’

“The biggest difference between Erie schools in 2016 and now is that there’s a greater sense of hope and a feeling that we’re having a more positive impact in the community,” says Joelyn Bush.

Bush is the director of marketing and communications at United Way of Erie County, a local nonprofit that teamed up with Erie’s Public Schools in 2016 to help implement the second innovation Badams proposed before he left—a pilot project at five Erie schools testing an approach called community schools that helps schools in a high-poverty district address the needs of students who have increasingly difficult lives.

“In 2016, we knew the biggest challenge Erie families faced was growing poverty,” Bush recalls. “Whatever we chose to do would have to address that.”

The model would also need to work within the district’s ongoing financial constraints.

The community schools approach matched the district’s criteria because, by design, it repositions schools as neighborhood hubs, not only for education, but also for integrated health, nutritional, and social services. And rather than requiring significant new outlays from local taxpayers, the funding model relies by and large on establishing a network of donor sources, primarily government grants and donations from local businesses and nonprofits with strong ties to the community.

In Erie’s case, seed money of $1.5 million for the pilot was provided by local and regional nonprofits, according to the Erie Reader, and each school implementing the approach was paired with corporations and nonprofits that pledged to cover ongoing costs of $100,000 per school, per year. The entire effort would be coordinated and managed by the county United Way.

“We knew we had people, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that wanted to help Erie schools,” says Mike Jaruszewicz, vice president of community impact for United Way of Erie County. “The community schools model provides the framework to do that, so people who want to help see how they can.”

“This wasn’t just a patchwork of programs to implement here and there,” says Bush; it was a way to have “real collective impact.”

Erica Erwin, currently the coordinator of public relations and strategic communications for Erie’s Public Schools, was an education beat reporter for the Erie Times-News when the district announced its pilot program. “The idea that there was a way to address barriers to learning, like poverty, by establishing a network of partners to help address the barriers was fascinating to me,” she recalls. “The idea seemed transformative.”

‘Thank God You’re Here’

But if the community schools approach were to fulfill its lofty promises, it would need to be workable for the people who had to implement it.

One of those people was Amy Grande, the community school director at McKinley Elementary School, one of the five schools in the initial pilot.

Born and raised in Erie, Grande has lived in the community her whole life. Prior to being hired for her job at McKinley, she had volunteered in the district starting in 2009, and then was hired as a gym teacher and an athletic coach.

Although she felt she knew her community and its problems—and felt confident that the community schools approach could help address those problems—she wasn’t sure how teachers would welcome having yet another program come into their school, especially one that saddled the school with the responsibility to address community conditions outside of the school.

It turned out she didn’t need to worry: “The teachers’ first reactions were, ‘Thank God you’re here,’” she says.

What teachers appreciated about the community schools approach and Grande’s role was that it gave them a way—and a person—to address the nonacademic issues that interfere with student learning but can’t be addressed by time- and resource-constrained teachers.

For instance, because Grande took her position midyear, during the typically harsh Erie winter, there were students who came to school late, or not at all, because they lacked warm clothing.

“Right away, I had 30 students who needed coats, boots, gloves, and hats,” she recalls.

What also quickly came to her attention were the school’s ongoing needs for basic food items supplied by the in-school pantry. Safety issues—such as lighting, security, and accessibility—also needed to be addressed. Eventually, she found herself helping families with things like utility bills and homelessness.

Sometimes, the issues were more complicated than what Grande and the school’s partnership with the United Way of Erie County could handle. But the community schools approach offered ways to take on and address those bigger challenges, too.

A Walking School Bus

“Transportation is a huge barrier for our families,” Grande says.

Getting to and from school became harder for Erie families when the city’s financial collapse caused the district to limit school bus service to only those families living outside a one-mile radius of the school. Later, that limitation was raised to 1.5 miles.

“At McKinley [Elementary School], that excludes most of our families,” Grande explains. “So, you’re talking about children as young as kindergarten having to cross dangerous roads, including highways, to get to school. That’s an incredible impediment to attendance.”

Consequently, McKinley Elementary School averaged only 73.5 percent of its students attending regularly in the 2018-2019 school year, which was well below the statewide average of 85.7 percent, according to an email sent by Jaruszewicz.

To begin to tackle the challenge, Erie educators and administrative staff, along with the support of their United Way partners, secured a grant to conduct a safe routes assessment to note where students live, the intersections they had to traverse, and the stoplights and sidewalk conditions students encountered along the way.

To address how students would get to and from the school, Erie schools and United Way of Erie County staff created a walking school bus.

“A walking school bus is a bus without the bus,” Grande explains, adding that a walking school bus consists of a group of students walking to school escorted by one or two adult “drivers.” The “bus” has designated “stops” in the morning where children “board” and proceed to the next stops along the way to school.

When school ends, students gather with their fellow “passengers” and are escorted back to the stops closest to their homes. Bus routes change based on safety conditions and the transportation needs of families from year to year.

Adult escorts for the walking school bus were recruited from a local service-oriented organization called the Blue Coats. The Blue Coats, Bush explains, was an entity born out of the need for Erie to address issues of unruliness and violence in the schools. The organization recruited volunteers, mostly men, to stand on street corners and other key traffic areas to monitor the behavior of students going to and from schools.

In 2015, the Erie school district credited the Blue Coats “with a sharp decline in violence in and around the schools,” according to an Associated Press article that appeared in the Washington Times, prompting a local philanthropy to award the Blue Coats a $300,000 grant, “to shepherd Erie children” through school.

McKinley Elementary’s first walking school bus started in February 2021 with only four students enrolled, but by the end of the school year, there were 30 students enrolled, according to Jaruszewicz. Of the 30 students enrolled, 26 increased their attendance, and the average number of students attending McKinley regularly jumped to 86 percent by the end of the school year in 2021, besting the state average.

Other Erie schools involved in the community schools pilot had similar success with raising student attendance rates. Strong Vincent Middle School saw chronic absenteeism decrease by 20 percent, according to Jaruszewicz. Edison Elementary School saw chronic absenteeism rates drop from 22 percent to 11 percent between 2017 and 2020.

Giving Erie a Fighting Chance

In 2018 and 2019, Erie’s Public Schools added one new school each year to its group of schools using the community schools approach. In July 2021, the district announced it would expand the approach to five more schools, based on the success of its pilot program, according to the Erie Times-News.

The short-term goal of the approach is for all students entering Erie High School to have attended a community school in their elementary and middle school years, according to the article. But “the long-term goal is to grow academic success,” says Jaruszewicz.

That may “take years for the results to show,” he readily admits, and certainly the interruption posed to in-person learning as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help.

But the progress Erie schools have made on improving student attendance is encouraging, as numerous research studies have found a close association between attendance in the elementary grades and achievement and social-emotional outcomes in later grades.

But Erie advocates for the community schools approach also tend to frame their efforts in a narrative about the city’s financial comeback.

“The work of community schools is also an economic development initiative,” says Jaruszewicz.

Erwin elaborates, “Improving the walkability to the school campus has ripple effects on family employability. If parents know their children have safe routes to and from school, they know they are free to be at work. When we add after-school programs for kids, parents know they can work afternoon shifts.”

Bush says, “The community schools approach is not just a school issue; it’s a community issue and an economic development issue. Investing in these students and families now will pay off in the long run because, through the model, we’re supporting the community’s future workforce.”

If Erie still has a fighting chance, it will need that.

The GOP now stands for trolls, vigilantes, death

The Rittenhouse verdict sent a shudder through America as terrorists and vigilantes celebrated: one right-winger called for wholesale slaughter of Democrats saying on Telegram, "The left won't stop until their bodies get stacked up like cord wood."

On Facebook, right-wing sites celebrating the verdict were the most popular nationwide by a factor of 9 to 1.

The parents of Anthony Huber, who Rittenhouse killed as Huber tried to disarm him, put out a public statement that said, in part:

Today's verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son. It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.

A right-wing militia group in New York celebrated in the streets and then put a punctuation mark on their disdain for the law and simple rules of a civil society by entering the NY subway system through the emergency exit, bypassing the toll booths. "Rules don't apply to us!" they seemed to be shouting, along with, "You can't stop us!"

Trump wannabees in public office who are still trying to capture the white supremacist and white nationhood vote have doubled down on his strategy of fear, hate, and vigilantism.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for example, recently signed into law legislation that gives legal protections to people who drive their cars into protesters in the street and defines everybody in any protest as a criminal felon if anybody in that protest breaks a window or engages in other illegal activity.

With DeSantis and other Republican governors pre-exonerating people like the driver who viciously killed Heather Heyer and vigilante protest shooters like Rittenhouse, many are worried that we're entering a new era where vigilante shooters and drivers-into-crowds will become as normalized and accepted as Amy Vanderpool documents how normalized daily mass shootings have become in America.

Laws similar to Florida's have been passed or are pending in numerous Republican-controlled states, presumably in anticipation of citizen protests when those states use their newly passed laws to overturn the will of voters in the 2022 and 2024 elections. Object to your politicians handing an election they lost to themselves? You go straight from the streets to the jail, just like in tinhorn dictatorships.

There's always been a fringe movement of violent white supremacist vigilantes in America, particularly since the end of the Civil War, but they've never before been embraced by or succeeded in capturing a political party. Today, astonishingly, that's the case in our country.

So, what's motivating today's vigilantes and the police who often aid and support them, as in the Rittenhouse case?

Centuries ago, as white people fanned out across this continent to occupy land stolen from Native Americans, it usually took years or decades for stable government institutions to be created, including local police forces. Therefore, communities would organize their own forces, called "vigilance committees" whose job was to be "vigilant" to protect their own homes and communities.

That sort of "classic vigilantism" pretty much completely disappeared in the US after the Civil War, however, when the southern-state slave patrols were merged into those states' militias (what we call the National Guard) and professional police forces, state and local, took over.

Modern post-Civil War violent vigilantism, therefore, doesn't usually emerge because the government is failing to protect citizens, and communities field their own equivalent of police forces.

Instead, these days it's almost always a conservative response to cultural change that creates a vigilante backlash.

Virtually the dictionary definition of "conservative" is "opposed to rapid change in society." That's why, as America becomes more diverse and states like Texas have become less than 50% white, racist "conservative" factions that have had a home in the GOP since 1968 are turning to violence to try to maintain the absolute dominance of straight white men in American society.

When the US Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, for example, those who were opposed to that change in our society, symbolized by the Roe v Wade decision, organized vigilante groups that threatened women outside abortion clinics, followed and harassed women getting healthcare and people who worked in the clinics, and murdered multiple doctors and bombed multiple clinics across the nation.

In the 1980s, conservative billionaires who supported Reagan helped impose neoliberal austerity on America, so for forty years the country has been on a steady decline as jobs went overseas, wages fell so badly the middle class sagged below 50% of Americans by 2015, and a general rage began to build across the country.

Much of that rage was channeled into "anti-government" movements that were encouraged by Reagan, who told us that government was the problem and not the solution. Neoliberal billionaires backed Republican politicians who kept their taxes low while openly and proudly obstructing any government efforts to help working class people.

The GOP also revived Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1980 using open appeals to racism with Reagan warning about "strapping young bucks" and Black "welfare queens" taking white people's tax dollars. George HW Bush put it on steroids in 1992 with his "Willie Horton" television advertisements against Michael Dukakis, charging the Democrat wasn't doing enough to protect Massachusetts from violent Black criminals.

By this time the GOP had totally embraced neoliberalism and stopped proposing any sort of policies that would lift up America. Instead, their efforts went to subsidizing billionaires with tax cuts, and increasing profits for polluting industries via deregulation.

Working class white people continued to fall behind, particularly in rural areas, as wealthy CEOs and trust-fund billionaires made out like bandits, pouring their surplus cash into the campaigns of politicians because five rightwingers on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery with Citizens United in 2010.

The Republican answer to the growing white angst in the country was to start a movement against affirmative action in the 1980s and 1990s, calling it "reverse racism," reviving the old saw from the 1950s that "Black people want to take your job!"

Women, since the 1970s, have also been successfully competing for jobs formerly held by white men, building misogynous frustration and rage among lower-income and lower-education white men, and turning incels murderous.

Much of this white male rage was channeled in the 1990s into the fringe "white nationalist" movement, which got their martyrs with Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993), where heavily armed white supremacists shot it out with the feds and lost terribly.

That provoked Tim McVeigh to follow The Turner Diaries "create a race-based civil war by provoking the government to seize guns so we can fight back" script and blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City on the anniversary of Waco in 1995, killing 168 and injuring 860.

He, however, was condemned by both political parties and ultimately put to death by a Republican president. The GOP had not yet fully turned toward embracing fascists, vigilantes and terrorists in the 1990s.

Modern race-based vigilantism with the support of the GOP took a big step forward after 9/11, when multiple Republican leaders used that crime as an excuse to vilify Muslims specifically and brown-skinned Arabs more generally. Most famously, Donald Trump perpetrated the lie that Muslims in New Jersey were celebrating in the streets the afternoon of 9/11.

George W. Bush took that anti-Muslim energy and amplified it as he pushed a revenge-based war against Afghanistan and Iraq, another Muslim country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.

Following Bush's presidency, a Black man whose middle name was Hussein became our president, creating a frenzy of bizarre conspiracy theories on the Fox Propaganda Channel and across right-wing internet and social media outlets.

Was Obama a "real" American? Was he really a secret Kenyan Muslim sleeper agent? Was he trying to flip America communist with his radical Obamacare program? Trump and Republicans were asserting that those were all true claims.

With the hard right now empowered by these conspiracy theories on Fox and talk radio, in 2014 Cliven Bundy challenged the authority of the Obama administration to restrict him from grazing his cows on public federal land without paying a grazing fee; Obama flinched and backed down, giving Bundy and armed, anti-government white men a huge national PR victory (as well as getting his cows back).

Two years later his son, Ammon Bundy, attacked and occupied another federal facility, this time the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon near the Idaho border. His armed vigilantes pointed their weapons at federal officers on live television, and, again, the Obama administration backed down.

Bundy's 2016 "victory" animated white supremacist vigilantes across the nation and made him enough of a media figure that he's now running in the GOP primary for governor of Idaho.

Things really stepped up throughout the Trump administration when the new president openly welcomed white nationhood militias and neo-Nazis into the GOP and praised them from the presidential pulpit, something no president had done since Woodrow Wilson hosted the debut of the Klan recruiting film Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915.

Trump invited vigilantes to the southern border to "help" with the problem of brown-skinned refugees trying to enter the country, and sucked up to police, encouraging them to be even more brutal with (presumably minority) criminal suspects.

His presidency marked a turning point for American politics, with the GOP abandoning any pretense of caring about policy debates to full-on embrace fear and hate of racial, religious, and gender minorities as their core political position and strategy going forward.

As a result, NBC News chronicles, threats against federal officials reported to Capitol Police have about tripled since Trump's first year in office, reaching over 9,000 incidents so far this year.

When we've seen these kinds of things happen in other countries, we've historically called them out as naked assaults on democracy; now Trump and his armed Republican faction have turned America's moral and political standing in the world on its head.

International observers have issued repeated alarms about the state of democracy in America since Trump's 2016 election. In 2017, we were downgraded by The Economist magazine's Intelligence Unit: instead of being a "full democracy," we are now a "flawed democracy." The international think tank IDEA just reported that we're now a "backsliding democracy."

Today, while the Democratic Party is working hard to secure benefits to all Americans, the Republicans have only two responses: block legislation and support armed white nationhood vigilantes.

All the Republican Party has left, now that they've abandoned any pretense over the past 40 years of supporting working people or even rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, is hate, fear and death.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his 1933 inaugural address about an earlier generation of Republican obstructionists: "They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."

And if we don't return to sanity, our democracy could perish as well.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of The Hidden History of American Healthcare and more than 30+ other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute and his writings are archived at hartmannreport.com.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How the media covers up for the Pentagon's highway robbery

Intense debate over the Build Back Better (BBB) legislation has triggered stern lectures by fiscal conservatives about government spending. The legislation, which hangs in the political balance between progressive lawmakers and conservative Democrats like Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, costs $1.75 trillion over 10 years in its present form, which is equivalent to $175 billion per year.

Compare this to President Joe Biden's proposed military budget expenditure of $753 billion for the 2022 fiscal year. According to the Security Policy Reform Institute, "This amounts to an increase of well over $12 billion, meaning that Biden boosted Pentagon funding by an amount roughly equivalent to CDC's entire annual budget."

Extrapolating this figure over 10 years while accounting for the projected yearly increases—a good assumption considering that the military budget almost never loses its annual raise—predicts that American taxpayers will be footing almost $8 trillion on the "defense" slice of our budgetary pie in the coming decade.

Stephen Semler, co-founder of the Security Policy Reform Institute, explained to me in an interview that "it's amazing how hydraulic the system is." By that he meant, "they cut $25 billion for home care" from the BBB bill. Meanwhile, he said, "Congress increased Biden's increase to the military budget by $25 billion at roughly the same time."

While the costs of the newly passed infrastructure funding bill that Biden signed into law and the yet-to-pass BBB legislation have been discussed ad nauseam on the front pages of major newspapers and in passionate debates on television networks, there is nary a peep from those same sources about the bloated military budget whose size continues to balloon year after year.

For example, this Washington Post article in late September headlined, "Biden, Pelosi embark on late scramble to save $1 trillion infrastructure bill" was one of many similarly billed pieces in major outlets through the end of the summer and early fall.

Imagine a headline casting implicit aspersions on the Pentagon's funding. The fact that the size of the military budget is more than four times the size of the BBB legislation ought to be emblazoned across our papers. But we can't imagine seeing such ideas being discussed in mainstream avenues because the military budget is considered sacrosanct—and not just by most lawmakers but also by corporate media outlets.

Semler pointed out that there are "two concepts of spending—social spending and military spending—that play by two separate sets of spending rules."

Coming on the heels of national hand-wringing over the costs of legislation that directly benefits the American people, the tacit acceptance of a military budget many times the cost of the social spending is jarring—but only to those paying very close attention or reading independent media outlets.

An example of fair reporting is Huffington Post writer Akbar Shahid Ahmed's article, whose headline reads in part, "The Pentagon Budget Costs 4 Times As Much As Biden's Social Policy Bill."

Another example is Prakash Nanda's article published in a non-U.S. outlet called the EurAsian Times, and headlined, "Joe Biden's $778B Defense Budget Goes Unnoticed But His $170B Social Agenda Triggers A Huge Debate."

No such headlines appeared in major U.S. news outlets.

It's not as if there is zero debate in the nation over our spending priorities. If corporate media outlets like the Washington Post were taking their cues from progressive lawmakers like Bernie Sanders, they might have reported on the Vermont senator's recent tweet pointing out how, "It is beyond absurd that at the same time as our nation continues to spend more on the military than the next 12 nations COMBINED, we are told over and over that we cannot afford to invest in the needs of working class people here at home."

But instead, the Post and other outlets have continually amplified the desires and demands of conservative Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), in story after story without following up on Manchin's willingness to spend trillions of dollars on the Pentagon. An article pointing out the hypocrisy of fiscal conservatives and their blanket approval of military expenditures would practically write itself. It takes effort to avoid expressing such a narrative.

Even some U.S. residents see the absurdity of the silence over the military budget. Alice C. McCain, living in Washington state, wrote a letter to a local paper called the Kitsap Sun questioning the size of the military budget. She was able to see the clear contrast in priorities, writing, "Some of the same people who denounce the BBB plan as too expensive are eager to pass a bill giving the Pentagon $778 billion for one year, or nearly $8 trillion over ten years."

She asks pointedly, "Why is it so hard to spend money on our country and its people, but so easy to dole out money for our military?" Her question is one that media outlets have judiciously avoided for years.

Organizations and think tanks like the Project on Government Oversight, National Priorities Project, and Semler's Security Policy Reform Institute routinely call out the unjustifiably large Pentagon budget, offering up rich statistical comparisons, none of which seems good enough for major media outlets to highlight in a serious manner.

Ultimately, media outlets appear invested in the same sort of imperialist ambitions as politicians do. Semler pointed out how, "the fear of Biden going into office was that the debate that him and [former President Donald] Trump had over who could be tougher, and more 'manly' over China, during the lead-up to the general election would spill over into Biden's policy."

That fear was justified. In June, Biden signed an executive order citing, "the threat posed by the military-industrial complex of the People's Republic of China," and has continued to drum up anti-China sentiment while proposing a military budget increase. The Post and other corporate media outlets dutifully buttress the logic of increasing the Pentagon budget with alarmist stories about China's expanding nuclear arsenal.

"Social spending could follow the same rules as military spending in that there's always enough money," said Semler. "But because Congress is only choosing to spend a certain amount [on social spending], effectively, military spending is stealing from social spending." Imagine seeing a top story in our major media reflecting such a radical and yet patently obvious notion.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How the Build Back Better bill will help millions of Americans with hearing impairments

Growing up, Tom Hay helped to raise hogs and crops on the family farm, never thinking to protect his ears from the din of tractors, combines and other machinery.

And while his United Steelworkers (USW) contract provided safety controls and protective measures during his decades at Titan Tire, he wasn't surprised when hearing tests revealed his ears aren't as sharp as they used to be.

Right now, Congress is on the cusp of helping millions of Americans like Hay live better lives. In addition to enhancing access to prekindergarten and battling climate change, among many other overdue improvements, the Build Back Better legislation would expand Medicare to cover hearing aids and other auditory care for the first time.

Hay knows that just like a strong heart and powerful lungs, robust hearing is essential for seniors' health, safety and fulfillment.

They need to hear honking horns warning them that they've stepped into oncoming traffic. They need to hear the sirens of police cars and ambulances that zoom up behind them in traffic. And they need to hear the alarms alerting them to fires, intruders and other dangers at home.

Yet even though about half of Americans 60 and older struggle with hearing loss—and even though voters overwhelmingly support Medicare coverage for auditory services—the nation has long relegated hearing care to the back burner.

As a result, many seniors delay getting hearing aids or forgo them altogether because of the expense, which can run to thousands of dollars. Numerous retirees shared these sorts of stories with Hay while he served as president of USW Local 164, the union representing workers at Titan Tire in Des Moines, Iowa.

"They go get a hearing test and realize they can't hear anything," Hay recalled. "Then, when they find out what it's going to cost, it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, I don't know where the money is going to come from.' They about fall over."

Today's hearing aids provide more help than ever before, and that's all the more reason to get them to those in need.

They're compact and highly sophisticated, delivering superior sound quality along with Bluetooth capability that connects users with their electronic devices. Vendors even offer remote support.

The demand for hearing tests and assistive devices is so great that some chapters of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), including Chapter 31-9 in Southeast Chicago, negotiate special rates with local providers.

"It's a quality of life issue," said Bill Alexander, the chapter president. "You don't even know when people are telling you they love you, if you can't hear."

While he's pleased to be able to make these services more readily available to SOAR members, Alexander believes all seniors, wherever they live, need access to affordable, high-quality hearing care.

Because Medicare covers other essential health needs during retirement, Alexander explained, it only makes sense for the program to cover hearing care as well. He's eager for Congress to heed Americans' call and complete work on the Build Back Better legislation, already passed by the House.

"If Medicare will give us a blood pressure monitor, why can't it give us a hearing aid?" asked Alexander, who retired from Acme Steel and Iron and predicts that he'll need hearing aids one day. "It's just as important. I know high blood pressure is a silent killer. But I don't know what life would be like not being able to hear."

People with hearing loss are more likely to experience depression, loneliness and isolation. They're also at increased risk of dementia and falls.

And untreated hearing loss is also a potential barrier to care in medical facilities, especially in conjunction with COVID-19 mask protocols that make one-on-one communication in hospitals and similar settings more difficult. Caregivers can have difficulty assessing and treating patients who are hard of hearing, and impairments rob seniors of the right to actively participate in their care.

"There's a lot of times they don't hear you, and they don't respond," Chris Sova, a licensed practical nurse, said of some of the patients at Bay County Medical Care Center in Essexville, Michigan. "There's just that breakdown."

Sova hopes that expanding Medicare to cover seniors' auditory care will spark a broader, nationwide conversation about hearing health.

"It's not just about the elderly," explained Sova, president of USW Local 15301, which represents workers at the Bay County facility. "Hearing loss doesn't magically happen in old age. It gradually occurs over years and years. It's something that could be prevented."

By "opening the door" through Medicare, he continued, "maybe we can get more preventive care as well."

Hay, who retired at the beginning of November, knows that Medicare expansion would have a real impact on his retirement.

As his hearing continues to decline, he wants to be able to follow the chatter at his grandchildren's sporting events and enjoy their school concerts and other activities. He's earned that after a lifetime of hard work.

"If I had to ask somebody what they said all the time, it would be kind of embarrassing," he explained. "You get to the point where you're not going to ask and just pretend you know what is going on."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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