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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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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 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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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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Trump’s infrastructure plan left the infrastructure out, with Hunter Blair


Donald Trump has been promising a big infrastructure plan since the campaign days. But what he’s got is a whole bunch of nothing. The president dropped his plan on Monday and it’s low on the funding and high on the private giveaways. Hunter Blair at the Economic Policy Institute has been following the twists and turns of Trump on infrastructure and the problems with so-called public-private partnerships for a while, and he joined me to break down Trump’s infrastructure plan.

I think the structure of the plan is what we expected to see. It is only $200 billion in federal funding, as opposed to the headline claims of either $1.5 trillion or $1 trillion that the administration had been claiming. Of that, $100 billion goes to this sort of grant program that kicks the funding decisions to states and localities. They are required to come up with 80% of the funding and the federal government only provides 20%. There is $50 billion for rural projects. All of it comes back to what appears to be their belief that state and local governments need to spend even more on funding our infrastructure. Then, there are quite a lot of boilerplate claims about leveraging the private sector.
…At the end of the day, private entities don’t bring any more funding to the table. Either the federal government is going to fund it or you are going to be looking at taxes or tolls or user fees. Private companies do not build our infrastructure for free and they don’t manage or maintain anything of the sort for free and they expect to earn a return. They will earn that return through partnerships that allow them to collect tolls or pay them through state and local taxes. Leveraging the private sector, it gets thrown around a lot, but it certainly doesn’t bring any new money to the table.

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Striking in the #MeToo Moment, with Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya


The International Women’s Strike drew a lot of attention last year, but is coming this year in the midst of a full-on feminist moment. Women around the world have deployed the strike to call attention to their working and political conditions, and are coming together again this year on March 8, International Women’s Day, in a show of collective power. Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya are two of the organizers of the strike, and they joined me to talk about why women strike and what it means when they do.

CA: The #MeToo moment has been a very important moment in the United States and also internationally because it has probably made apparent what a lot of women already knew, which is that sexual harassment and violence are part of the everyday life of the majority of women, either in the workplace or at home or in the streets. Clearly, gender violence does require a collective response. So, from this viewpoint, the Women’s Strike is not so much an alternative to #MeToo. It is rather one contribution or one attempt to try to give a collective response to the isolation that victimization produces.
The idea is that the step forward after #MeToo, after denouncing individually all the harassment and violence that we have suffered throughout our life, there must be, also, the moment of collective organizing and collective response. Otherwise, the structural conditions that enable this gender violence to continue are not challenged. One of the risks of the current attention on the issues of gender violence is that we will get rid of a few obnoxious harassers, some famous and some less famous, and this is all good, of course. I welcome this moment of catharsis, in a sense; but, this is not going to solve any problem.
In other words, the real problem is not individual nasty men. The real problems are the structural conditions that create the conditions and the impunity for gender violence and sexual violence. From this viewpoint and for the perspective of the strike, it is actually very important because clearly now we have learned in the past months to what extent women are harassed and abused as women in the workplace, but this clearly has to do with the way the workplace is organized and it has to do with labor relations, more generally. It has to do with the hierarchical nature of labor relations within the workplace, with the lack of power that the workers have.

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Permanent protections instead of temporary status, with Jaime Contreras


Trump has now revoked temporary protected status (TPS) for immigrants from four countries, the latest being El Salvador. Some 200,000 Salvadorans have come to the US fleeing civil war, earthquakes, and gang violence under this status, but now the administration demands they go home. SEIU 32BJ, the building service workers union, has 100,000 Salvadoran members, many of whom relied on TPS to work in the US. Jaime Contreras, a vice-president with the union and a Salvadoran immigrant himself, explains what the TPS policy has meant to people like his family and what the union is doing to protect its members and pressure Congress to fix the immigration system.

To me, this didn’t come as a surprise. We all heard the rhetoric during the campaign from this president. We knew it was coming. If there is one thing different between the Republicans and the Democrats it is Republicans say what they are going to do and they do it. Democrats, it is the ever-frustrating part where you say you are going to do something and then you do something opposite. Republicans at least stick to their guns and [Laughs] do what they said they were going to do. It is unfortunate. A lot of people were hoping it was only going to be rhetoric, but it is not a surprise.
You asked earlier “What are we going to do and how are we going to get ourselves organized?” SEIU and the rest of the labor movement, along with churches, community organizations, even the business community… The Chamber of Commerce is against eliminating TPS. Obviously, they weren’t heard. Now it is in the hands of Congress. Congress has to act and fix DACA, fix TPS, and allow these people to continue living in the United States as they have been. A lot of these people, like I said, they own homes, some of them are business owners, they have US-born children, they have roots here. They have roots here. You can’t uproot people who have been here for over two decades just like that. It is just not the American thing to do. So, we are going to be lobbying Congress and demanding they fix this problem once and for all for these people who really should be US citizens by now, if they were allowed the opportunity to do that.

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Serve your constituents or grow your own wealth, with Campus Action for Democracy

Rep. Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana is one of the richest members of Congress; he is, as the members of Campus Action for Democracy point out, a prime beneficiary of the Republican tax bill poised to pass. On the other hand, in the middle of his district–Indiana’s 9th–is Indiana University, where students, campus workers, and graduate students make up a large part of his constituency. The rest of the district is largely working class. When a group of Campus Action for Democracy and Hoosier Action members went to his office to ask to discuss his vote for the tax bill, they were met with stonewalling–for eight hours. They share their story, and the organizing they have been doing to challenge the tax bill and more across Indiana.

 

THG: The congressman has never been available publicly to his constituents at either office, anyway. We really felt when we went there yesterday like we don’t have the opportunity to have any kind of communication with this person who has been elected to represent us and is supposed to be our voice in Congress.
And over 8 hours yesterday he really proved that point to us, that we actually have no way to communicate with him. I can’t speak for everyone here, but I think we all had similar experiences. I felt really dismissed and disrespected and honestly disenfranchised by that experience yesterday, by the way that he and his D.C. office coordinated things around us without engaging us. It was a really troubling and upsetting experience as a constituent and a voter.
JK: We felt that the only recourse that we had to communicate with our congressman was to show up in his office and refuse to leave or else, perhaps, get arrested, we really honestly thought that was the only way we could get in contact with him. And it didn’t work. Maybe it would work if we went to D.C. and did this. But, again, the idea that you would ever have to leave your own state to communicate with your congressman is pretty patently insane.

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Interviews for Resistance is a syndicated series of interviews with organizers, agitators and troublemakers, available twice weekly as text and podcast. You can now subscribe on iTunes! Previous interviews here.