Former vice-president Joe Biden formally launches his 2020 presidential campaign during a rally May 18, 2019, at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia.

The Railway Labor Crisis Tells Us A Lot About Democrats' Priorities

Joe Biden’s betrayal of railworkers is a case study in everything that’s wrong with the Democratic Party: a party that talks about workers’ rights while governing in the interests of capital.

by Luke Savage, Jacobin

Earlier this week, the Biden White House issued a statement of thanks to Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who had just voted to impose a contract without sick days on railworkers and override their right to strike. Running less than 150 words, the press release revealingly made no mention of the other House vote — to include seven of those very sick days in the same deal — that had just taken place. Subsequently confronted over the omission, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre offered the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “The president,” she said, “supports paid sick leave for rail workers. But he understands there are not sixty votes. Right? There are not sixty votes in the Senate to make that happen.”

Roughly twenty-four hours later, the initiative duly died its expected death and fell eight votes short of the necessary threshold. Parallel legislation to impose a contract on railworkers meanwhile passed by a whopping margin of eighty to fifteen. Never let anyone tell you that bipartisanship is dead.

Former vice-president Joe Biden formally launches his 2020 presidential campaign during a rally May 18, 2019, at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia.

As Joe Biden’s various statements illustrate, the line from senior Democrats leading up to yesterday’s critical Senate vote was a classic Democratic sleight of hand. From labor and transportation secretaries Marty Walsh and Pete Buttigieg to outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, powerful Democrats have lazily gestured in the direction of support for the insertion of paid sick time into the deal while variously buck-passing, rhetorically spinning their wheels, or refusing to comment altogether. The act was hardly convincing but clearly served its intended purpose. By declaring their nominal endorsement of the rail unions’ key demand while simultaneously doing the bidding of the US Chamber of Commerce in working to prevent a strike at all costs, Democratic leaders, as ever, got to have their cake and eat it too.

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Radioactive waste barrels show signs of rust

Nuclear Waste Still Pollutes Vast Swaths Of The U.S. Landscape

For the first time, ProPublica has cataloged cleanup efforts at the 50-plus sites where uranium was processed to fuel the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Even after regulators say cleanup is complete, polluted water and sickness are often left behind.

by Mark Olalde, Mollie Simon and Alex Mierjeski, ProPublica

In America’s rush to build the nuclear arsenal that won the Cold War, safety was sacrificed for speed.

Uranium mills that helped fuel the weapons also dumped radioactive and toxic waste into rivers like the Cheyenne in South Dakota and the Animas in Colorado. Thousands of sheep turned blue and died after foraging on land tainted by processing sites in North Dakota. And cancer wards across the West swelled with sick uranium workers.

The U.S. government bankrolled the industry, and mining companies rushed to profit, building more than 50 mills and processing sites to refine uranium ore.

Radioactive waste barrels show signs of rust

But the government didn’t have a plan for the toxic byproducts of this nuclear assembly line. Some of the more than 250 million tons of toxic and radioactive detritus, known as tailings, scattered into nearby communities, some spilled into streams and some leaked into aquifers.

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January 20, 2020: Presidential hopeful Joe Biden (D) speaks to attendees of the the 20th annual

After Failure In Congress, Rail Workers Pressure Biden On Executive Order

After the president brokered a compulsory contract without a single paid day off for illness, one labor advocate implored him to “put up or shut up about how you really want them to have sick leave!”

by Brett Wilkins, Common Dreams

As the U.S. Senate on Thursday passed legislation brokered by President Joe Biden denying freight rail employees any compensated sick leave, labor advocates implored the president—who called himself the “most pro-labor” president ever—to sign an executive order guaranteeing at least seven days of paid days off for illness to railroad and other workers.

The upper chamber voted 52-43 Thursday—eight votes short of the 60 needed for passage—for a House-approved proposal by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) to give rail workers seven paid sick days as part of a tentative contract being forced upon rail workers by Congress and the Biden administration under the terms of the Railway Labor Act of 1926 in order to avoid a crippling strike.

January 20, 2020: Presidential hopeful Joe Biden (D) speaks to attendees of the the 20th annual

The senators voted 80-15 in favor of a Biden-brokered tentative agreement without a single sick day that forces rail workers to remain on the job or be fired.

Biden said in a statement following the votes that he would sign the bill “as soon as it comes to my desk.”

“I know that many in Congress shared my reluctance to override the union ratification procedures,” he said. “But in this case, the consequences of a shutdown were just too great for working families all across the country. And, the agreement will raise workers’ wages by 24%, increase health care benefits, and preserve two-person crews.”

Anticipating Thursday’s defeat, The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim wrote ahead of the votes that an unnamed “railway union source said that the next phase of the fight would be a demand that Biden include rail workers in a coming executive order that would mandate 56 hours of paid sick leave for federal contractors.”

“The bipartisan support in the House and Senate for the sick days, even though it fell short of 60, could boost the argument for including such workers in the order,” Grim added.

Some observers pointed to then-President Barack Obama’s 2015 executive order mandating at least seven paid sick days for employees of federal contractors—but with an exclusion clause for rail workers.

Progressive activist Jacqueline Anne Thompson urged Biden on Twitter to “sign an executive order guaranteeing seven days paid sick leave for ALL employees nationwide for any company with 50 employees or more.”

Another Twitter user quipped: “If you want to take an 11-dimensional chess view, getting Congress to pin the contract to a 24% raise and an average $16k bonus before Biden takes the paddle to the railroads via executive order would be a pretty sweet move indeed.”


People in masks walking by the signs outside the Pfizer Building on 42nd street.

Drug Industry Lobbyists Had Their Biggest Year Ever In 2021

Lobbying giant PhRMA reported revenues of more than $600 million in 2021, a new record for the group.

by Donald Shaw, Sludge

In 2021, as Americans consumed record amounts of vaccines and other pharmaceuticals, the drug industry’s chief lobbying group surpassed $609 million in revenues, according to tax documents obtained by Sludge.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America’s (PhRMA) $609 million in revenue in 2021 is a new record for the group, which has been rapidly growing  in recent years. In its 2020 filing, it reported revenue of $573 million. Its revenue has more than doubled in the past five years.

People in masks walking by the signs outside the Pfizer Building on 42nd street.

In 2021, PhRMA also spent more money than ever on lobbying the federal government, reporting to Congress expenditures of more than $29.3 million. Combined with political expenditures, PhRMA’s 2021 tax filing says it spent more than $205 million on non-deductible lobbying. This sum includes amounts spent on influencing legislation, intervening in political campaigns, communicating with government officials, or attempting to influence the general public. PhRMA spent more on federal lobbying in 2021 than just two other organizations, according to OpenSecrets.

Americans’ use of medicines has steadily grown over the years. According to research by IQVIA Institute, the use of medicines in the U.S. grew by 9.6% over the last five years. Overall, spending on U.S. medicines rose by 12% in 2021, primarily due to COVID-19 vaccines and therapies, according to IQVIA.

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Voters wait in a long line to cast their ballots

Ranked Choice Voting Soars As Voters Clamor For Democracy Reform

More than 15 million people now have access to ranked elections, and that number is only growing.

by David Daley, In These Times

We still don’t know how close House Democrats were to winning a majority, and the final margin in the U.S. Senate hangs on a December runoff in Georgia. We are bitterly divided — nearly split in seats in the House, Senate and governor’s mansions, with our parties like warring armies fighting trench warfare in a shrinking handful of battlegrounds. But the election produced two clear outcomes. Election deniers went down in flames in every close race, and ranked choice voting (RCV) stayed on its soaring upward trajectory.

Millions of people understandably are frustrated with the anti-majoritarian nature of our system. These days, it feels like a feature and not a bug. Since 1988, Republicans have won the most votes in a presidential election only once, yet served 16 years in the White House and appointed seven Supreme Court justices. By 2040, two-thirds of U.S. residents will live in just 15 states, but the Senate — and the filibuster — give older, rural, whiter states veto power over popular legislation. The combination has ended the right to reproductive freedom, with the U.S. Supreme Court governed by five justices appointed by presidents who lacked majority support, and confirmed by an unrepresentative Senate.

Voters wait in a long line to cast their ballots

Yet it’s also easy to see hope and signs of democratic renewal. In cities and states nationwide, all varieties of red, blue and purple, people have come together behind reforms to improve democracy and show all of us a path forward. Perhaps no reform has more momentum behind it than RCV, which works like an instant runoff: When voters have more than two choices, they can rank their choices top to bottom. If no candidate wins 50% in the first round, the last place candidate is eliminated, and the second choices kick in. Even as voting rights have become a depressingly polarized topic in our current crisis of democracy, RCV has been increasing in popularity nationwide. For a growing number of people, voting now means ranking.

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Members of the Azov battalion stand at attention during a drill

Western Media Is Celebrating Another Ultra-Right Ukrainian Militia

The New York Times has found new neo-Nazi troops to lionize in Ukraine.

by Eric Horowitz, FAIR

The New York Times has found another neo-Nazi militia to fawn over in Ukraine. The Bratstvo battalion “gave access to the New York Times to report on two recent riverine operations,” which culminated in a piece (11/21/22) headlined “On the River at Night, Ambushing Russians.”

Since the US-backed Maidan coup in 2014, establishment media have either minimized the far-right ideology that guides many Ukrainian nationalist detachments or ignored it  completely.

Anti-war outlets, including FAIR (1/28/223/22/22), have repeatedly highlighted this dynamic—particularly regarding corporate media’s lionization of the Azov battalion, once widely recognized by Western media as a fascist militia, now sold to the public as a reformed far-right group that gallantly defends the sovereignty of a democratic Ukraine (New York Times, 10/4/22; FAIR.org,  10/6/22).

Members of the Azov battalion stand at attention during a drill

That is when Azov’s political orientation is discussed at all, which has become less and less common since Russia launched its invasion in February.

The lesser-known Bratstvo battalion, within which the Timesembedded its reporters, is driven by several far-right currents—none of which are mentioned in the article.

Bratstvo was founded as a political organization in 2004 by Dmytro Korchynsky, who previously led the far-right Ukrainian National Assembly–Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO).

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Man stands at chalk board and podium

"Effective Altruism" Is Actually A Complete Hustle

The gonzo ethics of seeking to make gobs of money so you can give it away.

by Robert Reich

Today is Giving Tuesday — a day to focus on personal charitable giving to worthy causes.

But what I really want to talk about today is something quite different from charitable giving, although often confused with it: It’s called “effective altruism.” Known as EA to its practitioners, effective altruism urges people to give away a large share of their incomes.

Fine as far as it goes. But EA has been going much further.

One of EA’s most influential proponents is the Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, who has urged young people to seek high-paying jobs in finance (or wherever else they can make gobs of money) on ethical grounds, because they can then donate a large portion of their earnings to worthy causes. For example, by becoming a hedge-fund mogul, MacAskill says, you can donate large sums — and create far more good — than you can as a social worker.

 

Man stands at chalk board and podium

Or to take a different example, MacAskill argues that a young person concerned about the world’s poor could become a doctor in a poor country and possibly save the equivalent of 140 lives in their medical career. But if they took a job that paid them hundreds of millions of dollars, and then donated a big portion of it intelligently, they could save ten times as many lives.

Sounds logical. But wait.

MacAskill’s utilitarian logic leaves out the social costs associated with how a talented young person might make gobs of money in the first place. (One red flag: Elon Musk claims that MacAskill’s giving philosophy is similar to his own.)

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Trump supporters and protesters gather outside a campaign rally (and accompanying anti-Trump protest) for President Trump and US Senate candidate Martha McSally.

Far-Right Authoritarianism Won't Be Defeated In Just One Election

Yes, democracy does indeed seem to be on the decline, but is this really a prelude to a new all-American version of authoritarianism, or worse?

by Clarence Lusane, Tom Dispatch

Just in case you didn’t notice, authoritarianism was on the ballot in the 2022 midterm elections. An unprecedented majority of candidates from one of the nation’s two major political parties were committed to undemocratic policies and outcomes. You would have to go back to the Democratic Party-dominated segregationist South of the 1950s to find such a sweeping array of authoritarian proclivities in an American election. While voters did stop some of the most high-profile election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and pro-Trump true believers from taking office, all too many won seats at the congressional, state, and local levels.

Count on one thing: this movement isn’t going away. It won’t be defeated in a single election cycle and don’t think the authoritarian threat isn’t real either. After all, it now forms the basis for the politics of the Republican Party and so is targeting every facet of public life. No one committed to constitutional democracy should rest easy while the network of right-wing activists, funders, media, judges, and political leaders work so tirelessly to gain yet more power and implement a thoroughly undemocratic agenda.

Trump supporters and protesters gather outside a campaign rally (and accompanying anti-Trump protest) for President Trump and US Senate candidate Martha McSally.

This deeply rooted movement has surged from the margins of our political system to become the defining core of the GOP. In the post-World War II era, from the McCarthyism of the 1950s to Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964, from President Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, President Ronald Reagan, and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in its current Trumpian iteration, Republicans have long targeted democratic norms as impediments to establishing a neoliberal, race-based version of all-American authoritarianism. And that movement has been far too weakly opposed by far too many Democratic Party leaders and even some progressives. Don’t think of this phenomenon as right-wing conservativism either, but as a more dangerous, even violent movement whose ultimate aim is to overthrow liberal democracy. The American version of this type of electoral authoritarianism, anchored in Christian nationalist populism, has at its historic core a white nationalist pushback against the struggle for racial justice.

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An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone undergoing maintenance in a hangar at Columbus Air Force Base, MS.

Congressional Hawks Want Transfer Of Gray Eagle Drone To Ukraine

Joe Manchin, Lindsey Graham, and 14 other U.S. senators demand that Biden give Ukraine a top-tier U.S. drone.

by Jeremy Scahill, The Intercept

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has intensified pressure on the Biden administration to give Ukraine a top-tier U.S. drone capable of firing four Hellfire missiles or eight Stinger munitions. The 16 senators, led by Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, called the Gray Eagle MQ-1C “the Ukrainian government’s highest-priority military equipment transfer request” of unmanned aerial systems and said it would have “the potential to drive the strategic course of the war in Ukraine’s favor.”

Despite aggressive lobbying from the drone industry, the Gray Eagle’s manufacturer General Atomics, the Ukrainian government, and a slew of U.S. lawmakers, the Biden administration and Pentagon have so far declined to approve the transfer of the drones. They have cited concerns about exporting sensitive components on the drone, including a Raytheon-manufactured targeting and surveillance system. While the U.S. has exported previous generations of weaponized drones to its allies, it has never approved a foreign sale of the Gray Eagle.

 

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone undergoing maintenance in a hangar at Columbus Air Force Base, MS.

In their November 22 letter, the senators — including Republicans Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley as well as Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Mark Kelly — wrote, “Most importantly, armed [drones] could find and attack Russian warships in the Black Sea, breaking its coercive blockade and alleviate dual pressures on the Ukrainian economy and global food prices.” The senators asserted, “A Russian victory over Ukraine would significantly damage American security and prosperity.”

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Rail workers sit on the train line with their shovels at their feet

Biden Abandons Rail Workers In Attempts To Avert Strike

“Biden is siding with corporate rail bosses over the rank-and-file workers who voted against this agreement,” said one progressive commentator after the president urged lawmakers to take action to force through a deal without paid sick leave.

by Brett Wilkins, Common Dreams

Warning that the looming U.S. railroad strike “would devastate our economy,” President Joe Biden angered labor advocates on Monday after he implored Congress to take legislative action to force union members to keep working under a contract that many of them have rejected, mainly due to its denial of paid sick days.

“I am calling on Congress to pass legislation immediately to adopt the tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators—without any modifications or delay—to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown,” Biden said in a statement.

Rail workers sit on the train line with their shovels at their feet

Under the Railway Labor Act of 1926—which critics have long slammed as anti-worker—Congress can pass a joint resolution that would force employees to stay on the job. By signing such a measure, labor advocates say, Biden would be betraying his claim, reiterated in Monday’s statement, to be a “pro-labor president.”

Progressive political commentator Krystal Ball responded to the president’s statement by tweeting that “Biden is siding with corporate rail bosses over the rank-and-file workers who voted against this agreement.”

Labor reporter Jonah Furman went even further in his criticism, accusing Biden of a “full sellout.”

In his statement, Biden noted that “this agreement was approved by labor and management negotiators in September” and that the deal “provides a historic 24% pay raise for rail workers” as well as “improved healthcare benefits.”

However, while most unions representing rail workers did reach agreements with their employers, the two largest—the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET)—did not accept the proposal, which critics said did not address workers’ key demands on work rules and conditions.

The main sticking point involves paid sick leave. U.S. rail workers get none, and the deal being pushed by railroad companies and Biden would keep it that way. Congress could impose the industry-backed agreement without paid sick days, or it could heed unions’ call for the addition of such compensated time off. Lawmakers could also extend a “cooling-off” period, allowing negotiations to continue while workers remain on the job.

Tony Caldwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees—which rejected the proposed deal—told The Washington Post that “during [the] pandemic, our members suffered the most. The pandemic spread through our membership like wildfire. We lost members to sickness and death. They aren’t happy with the deal because it didn’t address their main issue: sick leave.”

Dr. Eric Reinhart, an expert on public health policy, tweeted Monday that “railroad workers still get zero paid sick leave. Increased risk of exposure to infectious illness is part of many jobs. Paid sick leave is both a basic part of fair employment practices and an absolutely essential part of national public health policy.”

An analysis published last week by the watchdog group Accountable.US showed that BNSF—a subsidiary of multibillionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which operates one of North America’s largest railroad networks—saw a net income increase of 4% to $4.4 billion during the first three quarters of 2022. Railroad giant Union Pacific also enjoyed an 11% profit increase over the same period, during which it spent nearly $8 billion on stock buybacks.

“The corporate greed never ends,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote Sunday. “Last year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $20 billion in profits after cutting their workforce by 30% over the last six years. Meanwhile, rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days. Congress must stand with rail workers.”