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Defeating the attack on food assistance–for now, with Rebecca Vallas

A lot of things wind up embedded in the massive, regularly-renewed piece of legislation known as the “farm bill” each year, and one of the most important–at least, to the 40 million Americans who rely on it–is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously and still commonly known as food stamps. The program has been in the sights of Republicans, fresh off a victory on tax cuts, who want to pay for those cuts by slashing benefits to working people and the poor. Rebecca Vallas has been following the progress of these attacks and the broader push by the Right to put “Work Requirements” on everything, and she joins us once again to talk about how the farm bill was defeated and how SNAP might be saved.

A little bit of background on what the SNAP program is. It used to be called food stamps. People might be familiar with that name for the program, but today it is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It helps about 40 million Americans put food on the table in any given month. Now, the benefits that it provides are already extremely meager. Just $1.40 per person per meal. Just pausing there for a second. Imagine that as your food budget, but you have got Republicans in Congress saying, “Nope, that is too much. We have got to actually take some of that away from people who are struggling to put food on the table.”
That is what this what this farm bill would have done, is to make a program that is already incredibly meager, where families already, by and large, report running out of food by the third week in the month. It is to make that program even harder to access for people when they are facing hard times. And the people that it targets, by and large, are people who are struggling to find work or can’t get enough hours in their job. That is who would be most hurt by this proposal.
Now, what happened last week, is we saw total unity among Democrats. We saw Democrats saying, “This is a heartless bill that I can’t vote for” and we saw that from every single Democrat in the house. What we saw in the Republican caucus was really disarray. Not super dissimilar from what we have seen on a number of occasions with a number of pieces of legalization where Republicans can’t quite seem to agree on how heartless they want to be.
We actually saw the bill go down literally in the middle of the voting. It seems like Republicans weren’t aware that they didn’t have the votes to pass the bill. So, we saw Democrats in lockstep say, “No, I can’t vote for a piece of legislation that takes food away from as many as 2 million Americans,” which is what this bill would have done. And we saw Republicans split between wanting to see the bill be even crueler and take even more food away from even more people. In some cases, in the case of moderate Republicans, we saw them saying, “Actually, I am realizing this is going to be bad for me in November.”

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Making Private Equity Pay, with Debbie Beard and Carrie Gleason

When Debbie Beard found out the company she’d worked at for 29 years, Toys R Us, was closing down, she was shocked–she knew the company had been having financial difficulties for a while, but didn’t realize it was that bad. The more she learned, though, about the way the company had been looted by private equity firms Bain Capital and KKR, the more she determined that no one else should have to go through this. Debbie and other Toys R Us workers are organizing to demand severance pay from the company, and beyond that, organizing to stop the kind of leveraged buyouts that saddle viable companies with unsustainable debt. She joins me along with Carrie Gleason of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy to explain what can be done.

CG: This has been going on for quite some time, and during the recession, about ten years ago now, retail companies started to turn to these private equity firms to help them with their financial struggles. Many retail companies were bought out through this process called a leveraged buyout.
In the case of Toys R Us, what happened was in say 2005 the company only had 30% debt. Then, as soon as KKR and Bain Capital bought it out, that flipped and the company went to 70% debt and only 30% equity. The company had long paid back this debt, but then, as every year, they had to pay management fees and other kinds of, basically, fees to take care of Bain Capital from one year to the next, on top of interest, and it became financially unviable.
Then, Amazon gets on the scene and all of these investors across all of these retail companies look at what is happening with Amazon. Last year, it became the second largest retail company in America. They thought, “Well, maybe we should get out now, it is going to take too much investment, capital investment, to make this company competitive. So let’s just close the doors.”
The truth is that Toys R Us is a completely viable business. Many of these other retail companies that are closing doors, like Nine West, are completely viable businesses, but the problem is that the owners aren’t looking to run the business of retail. It is a big problem. Then, it is not just this private equity ownership. Big companies like Macy’s and Kohl’s have other kinds of debt that are really crippling them in this moment where they actually need to be changing their strategies for the new retail industry that is emerging.
As a result, I will say, a lot of people are losing their jobs. A lot of hard-working women like Debbie are losing their jobs. And, this is a disaster, a financial crisis that could completely be avoided if we just regulate these Wall Street firms.
DB: There are several single moms in my store. I get emotional about this. I am sorry. I have got a mom, Melissa, she has got three young boys under six trying to make a living because she is a single mom. Julie has a specific schedule because she is taking care of her mom. It is going to upset their whole lives. Julie, as a matter of fact, has been with this store for twenty-one years. She opened this store and now she is going to close it.

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Finding healing justice, with Cat Brooks

The Justice Teams Network is a new project aimed at challenging dominant narratives of police shootings and helping communities find healing. Building on models developed by the Anti Police Terror Project and Dignity and Power Now, the network brings together activists with training in investigation, community support, and communication to deal with the aftermath of police violence, and works on policy to prevent it. I spoke with Justice Teams Network director Cat Brooks, who has also just decided to run for Mayor of Oakland, California.

When the cops kill somebody, the responding organization, whether it’s APTP, or somewhere else, our Facebook pages go off, our Twitter pages go off, our personal phones go off, We then send an email out to a list of about 500 people who are trained and are active in the database, who are trauma-informed investigators. That means they have been trained on how to engage communities and people that have dealt with various traumas. They go to the scene, they talk to community members. They look at the pictures. They scour the scene for any video footage that might be in existence of the incident. Sometimes the will pick up evidence that might be helpful that the cops leave behind.
Then, hopefully, the find someone that is connected to the family at that scene. If they don’t, they come back to social media and they scour social media. Because, inevitably, in this day and age someone who was there has posted something to Twitter. Once we have connected with the family, we have got two primary agenda items. One is to, within 24 hours, either hold a vigil or support the community in holding their own. The second, of course, is to see what they need. Then, in talking to the family, it is about finding everything out about the person that was killed. So, the news by that time, of course, has come out and said, “Oh, the police shot a black man–black suspect is actually how they say it most of the time–He had a gun and he stole a lollipop and he stole a lollipop in 1922 from Samuel Adams.” as if whatever happened in 1922 has anything to do with why he’s dead now.
We then come out with our narrative, the family’s narrative, “They liked the color blue, they went to church on Sundays. They were parents. They took care of their mother.” Just humanize them, because…when you talk about people, like dentists, students, mothers, lawyers, cashiers, whatever, we are having a different conversation.
Then, from there, we connect them to our legal team, which is pro bono legal support, and then we support them with communications, legal, fundraising—they have to hold a funeral, often have to raise money for independent autopsies because often the one you get comes from law enforcement, they’re not going to challenge what law enforcement said happened. Then, we walk with them, and that is a long walk because while the story is in the media for a week, maybe two, for families, this is years and years and years, it never ends. The pain never ends.

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May Day Without Immigrants in Wisconsin, with Gabriel Quintero


As May Day comes around again, once again immigrant workers take to the streets in protest of continued criminalization. Having defeated the 287g program, which makes local law enforcement into an arm of immigration enforcement, in Milwaukee, Voces De La Frontera and other organizations have called for a “Day Without Latinxs & Immigrants” strike action to halt the program in Waukesha. Gabriel Quintero is a member of Voces and spoke to me about the day, the departure of Paul Ryan, and their organizing under the Trump administration.

In the past, our Sheriff in Waukesha County, he wants to participate in the program called 287g, which would allow the sheriff’s department to act an immigration enforcement agent. This program has been known for not… What can I say? The purpose is not what the people wanted. We all hear about Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County, which is Arizona, he was using that program to intimidate and put all our community, immigrant community, and pretty much base it on your race. It was people afraid of this programs because you can be racially profiled. People being pulled over just for the color of their skin and to be questioned about status. So, this is not a good program for our community and, in general, the public.
We fought this battle before with Sheriff Clarke in Milwaukee and we won the battle. He was trying to use the program in the Milwaukee area and thanks to Voces De La Frontera and the actions of all the people together, we defeated this program in Milwaukee. Now, we’re trying to do the same thing in Waukesha.

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The strike wave rolls on, with Noah Karvelis of Arizona Educators United

Arizona may well be the next state to see a massive teacher strike, as they voted last week for a Thursday strike deadline. Part of the wave of teacher militancy, the #RedForEd movement began through a Facebook page with support from existing unions, and has led to a point where 78 percent of the 57,000 teachers who participated in the strike vote last week voted to walk out. Noah Karvelis was one of the founders of Arizona Educators United, the Facebook page that helped spur the movement, and he explains why Arizona joined the wave.

A lot of our kids here in Arizona don’t have textbooks that they need to be successful. They stop at President George W. Bush, for example. They don’t have working desks and a lot of the classes don’t have paper towels and just the bare necessities that you need for a classroom. What is happening is we have an entire generation of Arizona citizens who haven’t been given a chance at academic success. It has been thrown away by the state, any chance that they had of academic success. Which is incredibly maddening, especially as an educator. So, what happens, in addition to that, is educators are working in, just really bad, bad situations. Then, on top of that, they are getting underpaid. We have the worst pay in the nation for elementary school teachers and we have the second-to-worst pay in the nation for high school teachers. What we really have is an education crisis because our students don’t have the resources that they need to be successful, our teachers don’t have the resources they need to be successful or to even stay in the job, and our public school infrastructure is crumbling on top of it and we are hemorrhaging teachers.

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Repeal and replace the barriers to progress regardless of party, with Joe Dinkin

In a busy week for the Working Families Party, they announced a new director, found out that Paul Ryan was dropping out of his race against WFP member Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, faced threats of defunding, held a political education training, and voted to endorse the challengers in the New York gubernatorial race. Oh, and somewhere in there they helped pass paid sick days in New Jersey, too. I spoke with WFP’s Joe Dinkin about the party’s national strategy, how its challenge to Paul Ryan helped make him quit, and why they’re finally breaking with Andrew Cuomo despite his threats.

I think especially with Trump in the White House, with a cabinet and an administration composed of billionaires and avowed white nationalists who’ve been running the country, the urgency for our kind of values is felt more deeply and more broadly than ever before. People who are the opponents of that progressive agenda–whether they’re Republicans or whether they’re Democrats–are really feeling the heat right now. And it’s emboldened people to pay closer attention to politics–when I talked about the IDC in New York, we spent six years, eight years banging the drum about the Independent Democratic Caucus and how this third caucus was blocking progress on the progressive agenda, and almost nobody cared and almost nobody really understood it. It took until the election of Donald Trump for people to really wake up to the politics, pay attention to the news in a deeper way, look around and say “Well why can’t New York pass the DREAM act here, pass healthcare for all to ensure that if Trump guts Obamacare people are still covered, pass the Reproductive Health Act, and all of these measures of the progressive agenda that people deeply needed, why can’t we do that?” It was because of these state senators who were caucusing with the Republicans, and people got active and people got mad. I think that kind of thing has happened all over the country where there is this new, activated, almost radicalism, there’s a new energy in voters who are hungry for serious change and are really more open than ever to big ideas about the kind of change we need.

SJ: It separates you a little bit from the old model, which was very much based in New York, unions and community groups and the fusion voting strategy. That still matters but it’s not quite the center of the WFP strategy anymore.

JD: We have always been built on a base that includes unions, community organizations and grassroots activists, and what we’ve seen since the election of Trump especially but even going back before that to the Bernie Sanders campaign, to the rise of some of the social movements over the last couple of years is that that grassroots base, the individual activists are on fire.

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Striking Against Privatization and Charter Schools in Puerto Rico, with Mercedes Martinez and Liza Fournier

Puerto Rico’s teachers are fighting a bill that would turn all their schools into charters, by any means necessary. While teacher strikes are roiling the mainland United States, teachers in Puerto Rico have gotten comparatively little public attention. But they too have struck for their public schools–first underfunded, then left damaged after the hurricane, now on the verge of being turned over to private companies. I spoke with two Puerto Rican teacher unionists at this past weekend’s Labor Notes conference about their struggle first to get their schools up and running again, and then to save them from privatization.

LF: Right after the hurricane…I work in a school. I am an active teacher. We went back a week after the hurricane. Schools were completely damaged by trees, trash, structures had fallen down. So, the teachers were the first ones who got at school. We were the ones with the machetes, cleaning the schools, taking out all the garbage, trying to get schools fixed as soon as possible to bring students back. But, guess what? They didn’t let us open the schools. My school was ready to be open like two weeks after the hurricane, but we opened in November. So, my students were two and a half months without going to school. Not because we weren’t ready or it was our fault. It was because they didn’t let us open. Mainly, the teachers and organizations and the community were the ones who really cleaned the schools to reopen.
MM: After the hurricane, teachers, as Liza said, were the ones that reconditioned the schools. A lot of women. 85% of the teachers are female in our country, a lot of mothers. They were ready to receive their children. Every psychologist knows, they will tell you, after a disaster like the one we had, a category five hurricane, you need to come to some type of normalcy again and the Department of Education was denying our children their right to an education.
It is very important that after the hurricane happened, even though the schools were ready, they denied the schools to open, but school communities that had no light, that had no water, that had no communication organized themselves. There were multiple protests in our country. Five or six schools per day, the Teachers Federation was in a lot of communities organizing the parents and requesting the Secretary of Education to open the schools.
When she denied that after the protests, we performed a civil disobedience activity in her office. 21 of us got arrested for requesting her to open the schools of our country. People in Puerto Rico were with us. After that, she still denied the schools to be opened, so we took her to court. When we started the court case, she had 300 schools – that was in November – that were still closed. For the first hearing, when the judge ordered her to tell us why the schools were still closed, when we went to the first hearing, she had already opened 260 schools, leaving only 40 closed, so the protests, the civil disobedience, the pickets in front of her office, plus the court case stopped her from implementing the agenda that she had.
She said that she was going to shut down 200 schools during the hurricane and the community organization, plus all the activities that I mentioned, stopped her from doing that, from converting Puerto Rico into the New Orleans of the decade.

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Striking against austerity and the Right, with Jane McAlevey


West Virginia’s teachers proved that supermajority strikes can even beat a trifecta-red government, if they bring their community along, argues Jane McAlevey, organizer and author. Teachers, nurses, and other public sector workers, far from being the also-rans of the labor movement, have the power to challenge austerity and to organize their communities. McAlevey explains the difference between organizing and mobilizing, why she’s hopeful about the March For Our Lives and the Poor People’s Campaign, and what to expect from the Supreme Court’s forthcoming Janus decision.

What is interesting to me is that mostly men in our movement over the last 25 years have had a consistent line that the private sector matters more than the public sector and that the private sector is the most important place that we have to do our work. Like, if we are going to re-build the labor movement, it has to happen in the private sector and not until we get the private sector numbers back up to something close to the public-sector numbers can we win again. I have taken a decidedly fairly public different position, which is one sector does not matter more than the other and, in fact, where I have been evolving to lately is that if anything the public sector matters more. Not only because it is where we still have, until Janus, a majority of the membership of the labor movement.
But, it is actually also, I argue that it is the mission-driven, largely female, often people of color – certainly not in West Virginia, but elsewhere – who are the people suffering the consequences of austerity and who have the capacity to fight back because of those incredibly deep structural relationships they have with either their patients in the healthcare sector or their clients in the home care part of the healthcare sector. People who they serve and take care of or the students and the parents and the families in the case of education workers. Austerity is going after them. The austerity front is around healthcare and education. That is where massive cutbacks are happening.

Everywhere in the world, despite a multi-million dollar attempt, from Waiting for Superman on, to decimate the image of teachers. Even though the pages of The New York Times or any other mainstream liberal media outlet occasionally will agree, ordinary parents in strike after strike choose to stand with their teachers. Students stand with their teachers. No matter how many millions of dollars they try and use to degrade and attack and insult every educator–they haven’t moved on nurses yet, but as I am studying the attack on teachers, it is like it doesn’t matter how much money they waste, the relationship that is forged every day organically between mission-driven workers, workers who care deeply about their work, mostly female in the healthcare and education sector, is like an inseparable bond. That is why it becomes organizing and not just mobilizing, because they are bringing hundreds of thousands more people into the struggle and helping them understand who is to blame for the pain in their lives.

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“The time for this issue has come.” Keith Ellison on Medicare for All and more.


On March 9 and 10, the Congressional Progressive Caucus gathered for its strategy summit in Baltimore, MD. Members of the caucus and allies from left-leaning organizations and European left parties gathered to talk policy and power for the short, medium and long term. At the conference, I spoke with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota about the new push for Medicare for All, how to talk about racism and economic justice, and why it might be time to think about a maximum wage.

Most of us talk about racism from a very capitalistic standpoint. And what I mean by that is racism is what working class white people do to working class black people.
What if you looked at racism another way? Racism is what the big bosses use to manipulate everybody against each other. That’s another way of looking at it. Same kind of thing. But what does it profit a working-class white person in the antebellum South to be for slavery? That’s keeping you in poverty. But you say, you’re white. We’ll let you walk around in poverty, they’ve got to stay here. It’s the classic pitting of the have-nots against the have-very-littles. And this is the way they do it.
My view is that we’ve got to engage in real conversations with each other. We’ve got to ask who benefits from all this racism. Who loses–all of us! Because Florida purged black voters in the year 2000, the whole country got George W. Bush, which led us into a war with absolutely no justification and the whole country got a prescription drug benefit that enriched big pharma, this happened to everyone of every color. Racism helps elites control everybody else. Therefore our fight has to be solidarity.

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Cleaning house, winning power with Ady Barkan

Ady Barkan became a household name when he was spotted over and over again at protests against healthcare cuts in Washington during the fight for the Affordable Care Act and then against the Republican tax cut bill—which included cuts to healthcare programs. For Barkan, a longtime organizer diagnosed in 2016 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the fight for healthcare had become very personal. We sat down last week in Baltimore at the Congressional Progressive Caucus strategy summit, where Barkan, who masterminded the Fed Up campaign as well as being central to the healthcare struggle, was being honored with the Tim Carpenter Advocate of the Year award.

As to resistance, I think it has proven more effective than I or I think many people thought possible. Chuck Schumer and the like were all ready to capitulate on everything until “What the f**k, Chuck?” protests started popping up in Park Slope. And we actually were able to gum up the works to block a bunch–I mean, ultimately, he has really passed, enacted only one significant piece of legislation. Which is not terrible for a unified government.
I don’t think they are going to get anything else. They don’t have any good reconciliation instructions and it is an election year. We will see about this bank lobbyist Dodd-Frank roll back where the Democrats are being traitors, which brings me to the third point, which is that we have a lot of house cleaning to do.
The Dems are still way too in the pocket of Wall Street. Elizabeth Warren’s speech on the Senate floor was really fantastic. It is just so embarrassing and infuriating to see the DCCC endorse a union buster in Houston and all these Dems support rolling back Dodd-Frank. It is like, who among the American people are clamouring for reducing the regulations on banks? It is crazy.

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