Tax day, Passover week: labor, migration & justice, now...and in 2049

From our Restore Fairness blog-

On this year’s Tax Day that has just passed, several organizations including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), MoveOn, Daily Kos and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) joined forces for ‘Tax Day: Make Them Pay.’ The groups organized peaceful protests around the country outside the offices of big corporations and millionaires that have evaded paying taxes for last year, mostly due to government-mandated tax breaks. According to the site, “In 2009, after helping crash the American economy, Bank of America paid $0 in taxes. GE had a tax bill of $0 in 2010. Republicans want to give a $50 billion tax bailout to big oil companies…” These protests came at the heels of news that corporations such as General Electric paid no federal taxes in 2010, something that has infuriated the millions of workers around the country who work hard and are expected to dutifully pay their taxes on time.

The tax break issue is the latest in a series of developments that have recently charged the country’s politics around the issues of immigration and labor rights, with them coming together in the case of migrant workers. Last month, the country witnessed a major standoff in the Wisconsin state government between Governor Scott Walker (and his Republican-led state assembly) and thousands of labor groups and workers in the state as the Governor pledged to enact a bill to severely curtail collective bargaining. After three weeks of fierce debates, Gov. Walker managed to push the bill through. The Ohio state assembly soon followed suit, with other states such as Tennessee and Iowa heading in a similar direction. This steady erosion of worker rights presents an increasing risk not just to the economy of this country but also to its social fabric. It also echoes a past where worker rights were often ignored, especially in the case of immigrant workers.

Last month, several labor groups and organizations marked the centennial anniversary of an incident that highlights the lack of protection of workers – the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 28, 1911, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. To mark the centenary of the tragedy, many labor rights groups amplified their push for pro-labor rights legislation to challenge the spate of anti-union labor bills that were passed recently. The 1911 tragedy brings to light the plight of immigrant workers and the exploitation that still continues today. At a rally commemorating the tragedy, one union member, Walfre Merida, described the similarities between the condition of migrant workers today and those that perished in the fire a hundred years ago. Merida stated-

I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all…Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop. When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.

As stories of worker rights violations continue to proliferate, we must take heed from our past mistakes in order to avoid a degradation of these conditions in the future. This week – just as Jews around the world gather at the Passover table to recount their liberation from migrant slave labor in Egypt – Breakthrough’s Facebook game, America 2049, immerses players into discussions around labor rights, especially with regards to the rights of immigrant workers. The game utilizes several events and artifacts from the past to highlight the continued struggles of migrant workers in the United States. In the game’s world in which everyone has an embedded chip to mark their identity, players are given the mission to investigate a counterfeiting ring that helps indentured workers – primarily immigrants, though also citizens who have succumbed to crushing credit debt – to escape their unjust contracts and inhumane living conditions, and begin new lives. The game references the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as a lesson from the past about the respect and rightful treatment of workers. It also suggests a future that is even bleaker because we as a country have failed to recognize the importance of immigrant workers and worker rights to the success of the country as a whole.

Watch a testimonial by a character in the game, Ziyad Youssef, a Syrian man who was lured into a job with promises of good pay and easy hours, but found himself in slavery-like conditions, unable to look after his sick daughter or provide basic amenities to his family:

The United States is currently grappling with an issue that will inevitably affect our national economy and social conditions in the years to come. The denial of legitimacy and basic rights to immigrant workers will only hamper the nation’s growth on the world stage. In a special report on global migration published in 2008, The Economist argued for the widespread acceptance of migrant workers by the richer countries that so desperately need them. Speaking about the United States, the report stated-

Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. About 40% of science and engineering PhDs working in America are immigrants. Around a third of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. The low-skilled are needed too, especially in farming, services and care for children and the elderly. It is no coincidence that countries that welcome immigrants—such as Sweden, Ireland, America and Britain—have better economic records than those that shun them…Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy’s reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out.

Players in America 2049 will discover valuable artifacts from our country’s past that highlight an ongoing struggle for worker rights and have the agency to join the discussion and save the country’s future from the dystopic scenario the game depicts. One of the artifacts in the game is a poem titled ‘A Song for Many Movements,’ written in 1982 by Audre Lord, a black feminist lesbian poet. The poem articulates the connection between suffering and speaking out against injustices, which is what the workers rights protests around the country have been doing and which we must keep advocating until real change is made-

Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
or gallows
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
to listen
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.



Weekly Pulse: Joe Lieberman and the Opt-Out Revolution

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

Progressives rejoiced when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this week that the final Senate health care bill would include a public option. The announcement was a major victory for left-wing Democrats.

Better yet, it would be a public option without a trigger. Earlier proposals called for a triggered public option which would only take effect if private insurers failed to bring down costs on their own. Under the opt-out compromise, the public option would come on line automatically (albeit not until 2013), but states would later have the option of quitting.

The jubilation was short-lived. Alex Koppelman of Salon explains:

Progressives didn't even get 24 hours to celebrate the victory they won in getting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include a version of the public option in his health care reform bill. The celebration was cut off Tuesday afternoon with the news that Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., will vote with Senate Republicans to filibuster the legislation.

The Democrats have 60 Senate votes. If they all vote for cloture, a procedural motion to stop debate, the Republicans can't filibuster the bill. The Senators who vote for cloture can still vote against the bill. Reid's strategy for passing the bill was to get all Democrats to vote for cloture and let them vote their conscience on the actual bill. Even without Lieberman, Democrats have the votes to pass the bill by majority vote if they can avoid a filibuster.

Health care is the most important domestic policy initiative of the Obama administration. Would Joe Lieberman really torpedo reform? The Senate leadership thinks Reid is bluffing, according to Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly.

I understand the argument. Lieberman loves attention and power. By threatening to join the Republican filibuster, he gets both--Democrats have to scramble to make him happy, since there's no margin for error in putting together 60 votes. Lieberman gets to feel very important for the next several weeks by making this threat less than 24 hours after Harry Reid stated his intentions, but that doesn't necessarily mean he wants to be known forever as The Senator Who Killed Health Care Reform.

I find it very easy to believe, however, that Lieberman is capable of doing just that. He left himself some wiggle room, but not when it comes to the public option--he's against it, no matter what, even with all of the compromises thrown in.

In other words, if this is all a ploy for leverage, why would Lieberman open by swearing that he won't support a bill with a public option? You'd think he'd just say he was keeping his options open and force Reid to make him a counter-offer. Reid has already decided that the public option is politically non-negotiable. He's afraid that the base won't come out for the 2012 elections if they don't get what they want. Benen speculates that Lieberman wants to be the Senator Who Killed Health Care because he wants to drum up massive Republican support for his 2012 reelection bid. On this theory, Lieberman is joining Rep. Joe "You Lie!" Wilson (R-SC) and Balloon Dad in the quest to make bank on ridiculous publicity stunts.

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) says that she will side with the Republicans to filibuster the bill "if she has to," as Evan McMorris-Santoro reports for TPM. Snowe was the only Republican to vote for the Finance Committee's health care bill.

Reid must walk a fine line. The administration really can't afford to alienate organized labor before the 2012 elections. Newly elected AFL-CIO President Ricahrd Trumka continues to push for his three core demands for health care reform: a public option, a mechanism to make employers pay their fair share, and no taxes on health care benefits. Last week, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said that his union would oppose legislation that taxed benefits, but Trumka hasn't gone that far, as David Moberg reports at Working In These Times.

Finally, in other health-related news, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the division of the Labor Department that oversees workplace safety, has issued a sweeping new report condemning Nevada's state-level OSHA program. As I report for Working in These Times, the investigators found that NOSHA inspectors were being pressured by their superiors to write up employers on lesser charges, even when their repeat offenses killed workers.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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Voices of the Next Generation: Connecting Young People and the Labor Movement

Wall Street's collapse last year, which has already destroyed more than 7 million jobs, is hitting workers under the age of 35 with an extra impact. The unemployment rate for young people is nearly double that of the national average and, according to a recent study by the AFL-CIO, nearly half don't have health insurance. Retirement security for the new generation of workers has become an inaccessible dream - only 27 percent have a pension or retirement plan.

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Labor Leader McEntee Ruffles Feathers in White House

Crossposted from Hillbilly Report.

You know, one thing that led to so much disaster in the Bush White House was that Republicans refused to speak out when their leader was wrong. Instead of trying to change some of the mistakes he was making, they rubber-stamped every single wish of that President. That was particularly dangerous to our country when the Republican Party controlled both the Congress and the White House. That attitude caused many of the failed policies that got us into two wars incompetently, and crashed the economy.

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Union Leaders Hitting Back for Working America

Crossposted from Hillbilly Report.

From the "Things that refresh your day" category we have this story. It is no secret that corporate America has been lining up against working Americans on such essential initiatives as the Employee Free Choice Act, Universal Healthcare, Wages, outsourcing and other priorities. Well, now that Americans actually own most of these entities our friends in the labor movement are fighting back hard.

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