Key Lawmaker, Unions, Discussing Ways To Fund Infrastructure

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Richard Neal isn’t waiting for Donald Trump to act to repair and upgrade U.S. infrastructure.

The Massachusetts Democrat, who this year took over the chair of the key tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, has been meeting with colleagues, union leaders and even some businesses to figure out where to find funds for that objective.

Their aim: Garner enough money, from raising the federal gas tax and elsewhere, to repair crumbling highways, replace broken bridges, upgrade aging subways and airports, modernize the electric grid and install new water lines instead of relying on 100-year-old mains, among other projects.

And the unionists are going to lobby federal lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, for whatever new funds are needed, several leaders pledged this week.

They won’t have much trouble making their case. On the morning of an outdoor Capitol Hill press conference on the push, May 15, one participant, Rep. Michael Bost, R-Mo., found out that “I-44 westbound in my district” north of St. Louis “was closed when they found a 6-inch crack” in road’s superstructure.

“It’s a safety issue,” the former firefighter added. “How would you like to have your house on fire and have the truck hook up to a hydrant, and the water main serving it breaks?”

Neal’s discussions, with members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and with the 85-member House Labor and Working Families Caucus, come as once again lawmakers prepare to tackle the problems of U.S. infrastructure – problems that are so acute that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country a D+ grade on the issue.

 

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Infrastructure Advocates Warn Against Using Projects to Repeat Past Racial, Class Divisions

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Running east-west through the middle of the Little Rock, Ark., metro area, Interstate 630 divides Arkansas’ capital city from its top suburb in more ways than one.

Not only does the federally funded freeway split Little Rock on the south from North Little Rock on the north, but it also splits the whiter, richer north side of the metro area, from the poorer, black and brown south side.

That segregation’s intentional. And that’s common, from Detroit’s Eight Mile Road to Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway to New York City’s Robert Moses building bridges low enough so that city buses, carrying blacks, couldn’t drive under them on the way to the Big Apple’s beaches.

And that’s what advocates of pumping billions of new federal dollars U.S. highways, railroads, subways and airports want to prevent from happening again.

Studies show that from Baltimore to Detroit, from Little Rock to Chicago, highways – and, before them, railroads – were deliberately sited by governments and built by either governments or companies to maintain or extend racial and class segregation. And there were unusual twists like Moses’ anti-bus bridges, too.

And while an airport site might be neutral racially, flight paths the planes follow nationwide in takeoffs or landings are another matter, speakers at a May 13 infrastructure symposium said. Guess who suffers the most plane noise from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport? Hint, unless you’re on the North Shore late on summer evenings, it’s not ultra-ritzy Kenilworth.

And federally funded expressways not only split the races, but often, especially after the advent of mass suburbanization following World War II, permitted “white flight” from central cities, studies show.

So Chicago’s monstrous Dan Ryan Expressway not only separates whites from blacks on the South Side, deliberately, but lets other whites drive out of the Loop at night to the south and southwest suburbs.

Former Obama-era Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott and Teachers President Randi Weingarten don’t want to see a rerun of all that.

 

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Volkswagen Gets NLRB to Throw Legal Delay into New UAW Organizing Drive at Chattanooga

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Even as Volkswagen keeps saying it’s officially neutral, its bosses convinced the National Labor Relations Board to throw a legal delay into the United Auto Workers’ new organizing drive at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant.

In response, the union has dropped the labor law-breaking – formally called unfair labor practices – charges it filed against VW in an ongoing dispute over whether the company must recognize UAW’s recognition win by Local 42 in the small unit of 160 unionized VW skilled trades workers there.

That withdrawal knocks the props out from under the company’s maneuver, opening the way for a vote among all 1,700 Chattanooga workers, the union told the NLRB on May 9. The board, now dominated by Trump-named members, however, has yet to agree.

On May 3, by a 2-1 party-line vote, the NLRB sided with VW and delayed the vote.

The legal maneuvering marks UAW’s second attempt to organize all the Chattanooga workers in one of only two VW non-union plants worldwide. The other is in China.

UAW’s campaign to unionize Chattanooga, and a similar effort at Nissan’s plant in Mississippi, is part of the union’s drive to break through into foreign “transplant” auto factories in the traditionally and culturally union-hostile South.

In turn, the UAW drive is also part of organized labor’s wider focus on organizing the unorganized in the growing, but anti-union, region. Tennessee was 5.1% unionized and Tennessee was 5.5% unionized last year, federal calculations show.

Both U.S. and foreign automakers have been erecting plants in states of the old Confederacy in barely concealed gambits to avoid unions. And when UAW and other unions try to organize such plants, bosses play off white workers against their African-American colleagues in a time-tested “divide and conquer” campaign.

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They did their time. They regained the vote. Florida is taking it away again.

Addy Baird

Addy Baird Reporter, ThinkProgress

Coral Nichols will be eligible to vote again when she is 188 years old. That’s the estimate, at least, if she pays the state of Florida $100 per month to satisfy her nearly $190,000 debt.

Nichols is one of 1.4 million people with felony convictions in Florida who had their right to vote restored last fall following the passage of Amendment 4, a victory that marked one of the most significant expansions of the right to vote in the United States in the last century. 

“It was completely amazing,” Nichols said, recalling when the ballot initiative passed in November. “We had all worked so hard, and we had all believed that the people in the state of Florida believed in second chances.”

Many activists and experts argue that Amendment 4 was self-executing, meaning that once it was passed by voters, the measure would be put into effect, no questions asked.

But Republicans in the state legislature last week passed a new bill making regaining the vote conditional on having first fully repaid any outstanding fines and fees — including ones not related to their felony conviction.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has said he will sign the bill into law in the coming days. When he does, it could keep people like Nichols from the ballot box for the rest of their lives.

Nichols, 41, grew up in Oklahoma. Her father, a Vietnam War veteran, was abusive, and Nichols says stealing money from her family and being able to buy herself new things made her feel good. Her father died when she was 21, and Nichols’ spending habits spiraled. “My addiction became money,” she said.

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We hear the Dow Jones Average, but why not the Doug Jones Average?

Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower Author, Commentator, America’s Number One Populist

Language matters. For example, the words that corporate and government officials use to report on the health of America’s economy can either make clear to us commoners what’s going on – or hide and even lie about the reality we face.

Consider the most common measurement used by officials and the media to tell us whether our economy is zooming or sputtering: Wall Street’s index of stock prices. The media literally spews out the Dow Jones Average of stock prices every hour – as though everyone is waiting breathlessly for that update.

But wait – nearly all stock is owned by the richest 10 percent of Americans, so the Dow Jones Average says nothing about the economic condition of the 90 percent majority of Americans. For us (and for the true economic health of America as a whole) we need to know the Doug Jones Average – how’re Doug and Dolores doing?

As we’ve seen, stock prices keep rising to new highs, while wages and living standards of the middle class and poor majority have been held down by the same corporate and political “leaders” telling us to keep our eye on the Dow. To disguise this decline they play another dirty language trick on us when they issue the monthly unemployment report. Currently, with the unemployment rate down to four percent, they tell us America’s job market is booming!

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Trade War Update: More Tariffs Go Up

Matthew McMullan

Matthew McMullan Communications Manager, Alliance for American Manufacturing

These days there’s enough happening on the Trump administration’s trade agenda that it warrants a weekly update. It’s Tuesday! And we’re gonna talk about trade!

It’s Trade Tuesday!

Last week President Trump, on the advice of his trade negotiator, further raised tariffs on Chinese imports after Chinese negotiators made sweeping revisions to agreements the U.S. side believed were settled.

Those Chinese negotiators still arrived in Washington for talks a few days later, apparently just to keep the talks going. The U.S. tariffs went up while they were still in town, and China has since retaliated with more tariffs against American imports of its own – and its state-run media outlets, which have until now been relatively quiet on the topic of the American trade dispute, are now getting involved. This editorial was featured in the Xinhua News Agency and the People’s Daily:

“The most important thing is that in the Sino-U.S. trade war, the American side fights because of greed and arrogance. If it does not brag and make up stories, the country’s morale will break. China is fighting back to protect its legitimate rights and interests.”

“… The trade war in the United States is the creation of one person and his administration who have swept along the entire population of the country. Whereas, the entire country and all the people of China are being threatened. For us, this is a real ‘people's war.’”

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Future of workers uncertain as third-biggest US coal company declares bankruptcy

E.A. Crunden

E.A. Crunden Reporter, ThinkProgress

The third-largest coal company in the United States has declared bankruptcy, leaving the future of its more than 1,000 workers uncertain. The announcement is also the latest indicator that the faltering coal industry is spinning further into decline despite the efforts of President Donald Trump to save it.

Wyoming-based Cloud Peak Energy filed for Chapter 11 reorganization on Friday, a move that has been expected since at least the spring. The company has pointed to a weak market as a leading reason for its struggles, in addition to sluggish success in expanding exports. Officials said the company’s mines will continue to operate throughout the bankruptcy process; Cloud Peak operates two mines in Wyoming and one in Montana.

“While we undertake this process, Cloud Peak Energy remains a reliable source of high-quality coal for customers,” Cloud Peak President and CEO Colin Marshall said in a statement.

The company’s workers lack union protections. But even coal miners backed by unions are at risk — a ruling earlier this year allowed a coal company to abandon union contracts. And broader threats to federal funding for miner benefits are jeopardizing pensions for tens of thousands of workers.

Cloud Peak’s financial troubles reflect the broader realities of coal, which is being displaced by cheaper energy sources, including natural gas and renewables. Since 2015, major coal companies Alpha Natural Resources, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Mission Coal, and Westmoreland Coal have all declared bankruptcy amid falling profits and increasing concerns over long-term viability.

While that trend has continued through several presidential administrations, more coal plants closed during Trump’s first two years in office than during the entire first term of the Obama administration.

In total, at least 50 U.S. coal plants have shuttered under Trump as of this month, according to a Sierra Club report released last week. The uptick reflects market realities but it also comes despite the White House’s best efforts to revive coal.

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Surprise! Kavanaugh joins liberal justices in 5-4 decision

Ian Millhiser

Ian Millhiser Senior Constitutional Policy Analyst, Think Progress

The Supreme Court held on Monday that antitrust plaintiffs may sue Apple for allegedly using its monopoly over iPhone app sales to jack up prices. The decision itself is a minor one, as it largely turns on who is allowed to sue the tech giant for its alleged antitrust violations, not whether Apple broke the law.

Nevertheless, Apple Inc. v. Pepper is significant for an unexpected reason. It is the first case where Trump judge Brett Kavanaugh crossed over to vote with his four liberal colleagues in a 5-4 decision.

The iPhone’s app store, as Kavanaugh notes in his opinion, “is the only place where iPhone owners may lawfully buy apps” for their phone. Apple permits developers to set the prices of these apps, but it also takes a 30% commission on all app sales, regardless of what price the developer sets.

The theory of the plaintiffs’ case is that, were iPhone apps sold in a competitive market with multiple sellers, Apple would have to lower its 30% commission in order to compete with those other sellers. Thus, Apple effectively uses its monopoly on app sales to drive up prices and jack up its own profits.

So it’s a fairly straightforward antitrust case, but there is one hitch. More than four decades ago, in Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, the Supreme Court held that only “direct purchasers” may bring antitrust suits against an alleged monopolist.

Illinois Brick involved an alleged price-fixing scheme by a brick company that sold those bricks to masonry contractors, who in turn sold pre-assembled structures to general contractors, who in turn sold construction services to the state of Illinois. Illinois sued the brick company, alleging that it paid higher construction costs because of the price fixing scheme. The Supreme Court held that Illinois could not sue the brick company because, in Kavanaugh’s words, “the State had not purchased concrete blocks directly from Illinois Brick.”

But, as Kavanaugh explains in his Apple opinion, this more recent case is not Illinois Brick. That is, Apple is not a case where a company sold a product to a contractor, who sold it to another contractor, who sold it to an antitrust plaintiff. Apple is a case where a tech company sold a product directly to consumers. Thus, under Illinois Brick, Apple may be sued by those consumers.

Indeed, Apple is such a straightforward case that the most surprising aspect of Monday’s decision is that it produced a dissent — much less a four person dissent. Had Apple prevailed, that decision could have had negative consequences for consumers. As Kavanaugh explains, “Apple’s theory would provide a roadmap for monopolistic retailers to structure transactions with manufacturers or suppliers so as to evade antitrust claims by consumers and thereby thwart effective antitrust enforcement.”

Nevertheless, the most important question arising from Apple is what we should make of Kavanaugh’s apostasy. As I wrote last January, Kavanaugh is not Neil Gorsuch — the nihilist conservative that President Donald Trump placed on the Supreme Court after Senate Republicans held a seat on that court open for more than a year. While Gorsuch embraces “a will-to-power approach to judging” which demands that he seize as much power as he can, and as fast as he can, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts “appear to prefer a slower, more incremental approach.”

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Politcizing Critical Transportation Projects is a Dangerous Game Working Families Cannot Afford

Larry I. Willis President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

When Vice President Mike Pence toured the damage in America’s heartland caused by historic flooding, he pledged to work with Republicans and Democrats to ensure farmers and ranchers in Iowa and Nebraska receive the federal funding they need to rebuild. He was right to do so.

Asking rural families to front the full cost of fixing their infrastructure would be appalling – and would not just be a disservice just to America’s heartland. It would hurt our entire economy. That’s because the roads, bridges, and levies that, for generations, have allowed the Midwest to feed a nation and export food products do not function in a vacuum. Like transit systems in the Northeast or ports on the West Coast, they are all part of a complex, interconnected transportation network that allows this country, it’s economy, and working families to prosper, and they deserve federal funding.

Somewhere along the way, though, it seems too many elected leaders have lost sight of this. Instead of valuing projects based on their merits, some are now valuing projects based on the political landscape of the states they are in. This dangerous approach to infrastructure jeopardizes the integrity of our national system, undermines America’s position as a global economic leader, and harms working families.

Just look at California High Speed Rail (CAHSR). Despite ongoing criticism, California is still committed to a high-speed rail network that will improve mobility and spur economic activity in an area that desperately needs both. On paper, the project is everything our president said he wanted in infrastructure. California has contributed real dollars—to the tune of $11 billion, has involved the private sector in a significant way, and is trying to consolidate environmental reviews. The Administration’s effort to claw back federal dollars and slow walk environmental approvals is nothing more than an attempt to further politicize this project.

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ALEC Wants To Make Protest Illegal In Illinois

Maggie Ellinger-Locke Staff Attorney, Greenpeace USA

Dangerous anti-protest legislation is working its way through state assemblies all across the U.S., chipping away at the right to protest and undermining social justice movements. State legislators have introduced nearly 100 bills curbing your right to protest since the resistance at Standing Rock began. And if oil and gas companies get their way, Illinois will now be added to the list.

HB 1633, a bill targeting activists, has already overwhelmingly passed the Illinois House of Representatives and is now pending in the State Senate. It has been slated for a hearing next Tuesday, May 14, at 5 p.m., and people can submit witness slips for or against the bill here. 

If this bill is enacted, protesters in Illinois will no longer be able to resist the expansion of fossil fuel pipelines in their communities without risking felony charges.

Specifically, this bill seeks to increase criminal penalties for people who trespass on so-called critical infrastructure facilities. The bill almost exactly lifts its language from a model bill authored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive group of corporate lobbyists trying to rewrite state laws to benefit corporations over people.

The bill would broadly redefine “critical infrastructure” to include oil and gas pipelines and processing facilities, and turn peaceful activity by protesters into a class four felony punishable by up to three years of incarceration and a heavy fine.

In Illinois as other states, this bill is based almost word-for-word on ALEC’s model critical infrastructure bill, which was inspired by legislation first passed in Oklahoma in 2017, in response to the months-long protests at Standing Rock which stalled construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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