Labor’s Landscape

Dispatches from the Labor Front by Members of the Higgins Labor Program Network

“Labor’s Landscape” is an online vehicle for original contributions by friends of the Higgins Labor Program. Expect regular entries from our near and far-flung network of alumni, allies, academics, and activists, each of whom will offer a unique perspective on what’s happening in the worlds of work, workers, and workplaces.

* Note: The writers neither speak for, nor on behalf of, the Higgins Labor Program or the Center for Social Concerns.

Jan. 15, 2018: Notre Dame undergraduate Gianfranco Cesareo asks, “Have We Forgotten That Economic Justice Was Central to King’s Vision?”
Nov. 24, 2017: Notre Dame economist Marty Wolfson shows how the “GOP Tax Bill Shifts Resources to the Rich” 
Oct. 23, 2017: Indiana University Law Professor Fran Quigley asks, “Can the Labor and Faith Communities Fix the Drug Pricing Crisis?”
​Oct. 4, 2017: A Notre Dame undergraduate contemplates “Working across the Border: Dispatches from Checkpoint 300, Jerusalem/Bethlehem”

“Have We Forgotten That Economic Justice Was Central to King’s Vision?”

by Gianfranco Cesareo, Class of 2019, University of Notre Dame
January 15, 2018

Each January when we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we remember Dr. King’s “dream” from his famous speech from the 1963 March on Washington. He dreamt that one day his children would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls.”

Popular memory recalls King as the nonviolent preacher who led the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow and segregation — as the charismatic speaker who dreamed of a colorblind society.  Yet, very little is said about his fight for economic justice. Is this narrative surrounding King and his dream a whitewashed and watered-down version of the Civil Rights movement?  Has he been revised to serve as a poster boy carefully crafted so that the Civil Rights Movement can be framed as a success and racism declared dead? At the very least, the popular portrayal of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement today is decidedly incomplete.

Largely gone from King’s legacy and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement is the struggle for economic justice. The March on Washington is rarely remembered by its full title, “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Jobs — actually, the lack thereof — were foremost among the reasons why nearly a quarter million people descended on the national mall to protest racial injustice and inequality. Economic issues, more so than even discrimination, affected the daily lives of African Americans, and many speakers at the March highlighted the centrality of economic issues to the fight for civil rights.

A. Philip Randolph, the black labor and civil rights leader who was the visionary behind and chief organizer of the March on Washington, devoted his remarks that day to the significance of economic inequality: “We have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. … Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.”

John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (and now the longtime Democratic Congressman from Georgia) began his speech with a reminder that “we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all,” and went on to be highly critical of the proposed Civil Rights legislation.

Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, stated, “We want employment, and with it, we want the pride, and responsibility, and self-respect that goes with equal access to jobs.”

Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers and the March on Washington’s most prominent white speaker, noted that “We will not solve education or housing or public accommodations, as long as millions of Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.”  Reuther’s speech also included a call for full employment.

By calling for what Randolph termed “real freedom” that  would “require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions,” the March on Washington was nothing less than a radical call for the transformation of the American economy.  The March’s economic demands included raising the minimum wage by nearly 75 percent for all workers, and a program that would train and subsequently employ all unemployed workers — both black and white.  When these demands were read by one of the March’s key organizers, Bayard Rustin, to close out the March, one left-wing journalist wrote, “No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans.”

Following the March on Washington, Rustin reflected on why economic issues were so central to civil rights. According to him, “The struggle began with the problem of dignity” alluding to the fights against segregation on buses and at lunch counters. But, he continued, “[t]he Negro, like everyone else, cannot achieve even dignity without a job.” It is for this reason that civil rights leaders like Randolph and King emphasized economic justice as a key component of the Civil Rights Movement.    

Dr. King might be described as no less than an economic radical today, devoting the final months of his life to the “Poor People’s Campaign” in which King called for a “revolutionary movement” based in “class struggle” to achieve economic equality.  He advocated for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power” and proclaimed that “the whole structure of American life must be changed.” It’s telling that King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike. But now, nearly 50 years after his death, his struggle for economic justice has been all but erased from the American popular memory.   

Perhaps because they have been all but forgotten, the economic issues that King and other Civil Rights leaders fought for are still issues today.  The Economic Policy Institute published a study on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington highlighting the ways in which the civil rights struggle had largely failed to address economic inequalities, and that hasn’t changed as we head into 2018.

The facts are sobering. The black unemployment rate remains nearly twice as high as white unemployment. The wage gap between white and black workers is larger now than it was in 1979 or 2000. The federal minimum wage remains $7.25 an hour, well below the wage needed to keep a family out of poverty. Nearly a quarter of black Americans still live in poverty, and nearly half of poor black children live in neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated. Partially a result of this, nearly three fourths of black children attend segregated schools, a number that has increased in recent years.  As of 2013, the median wealth of black households was $11,200 compared to $144,200—nearly 13 times more—for white households.

The fact is that — in spite of civil rights activists’ efforts – the economic obstacles and structural racism long endured by African Americans were never adequately addressed during the movement’s heyday in the 1960s, and economic inequality as a whole has only increased since then. With the erasure from memory of the importance of economic issues in the Civil Rights struggle, a large number of white Americans perceive racism to be dead, dismissing the economic issues that currently face African Americans as their own fault — a product of their own laziness rather than structures that have made it extremely difficult for advancement.  

Perhaps by recognizing the link between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and issues of labor and the economy, Americans might be able to recognize the ways in which the economy remains unequal and unfair for many Americans, particularly people of color. As Martin Luther King proclaimed in the final speech before his untimely death, “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”  As we commemorate the man and the freedom struggle for which he sacrificed his life, let’s also recognize that we haven’t gotten there yet.

Gianfranco Cesareo is a junior history and political science major at the University of Notre Dame. He fails from Worcester, Massachusetts.

“GOP Tax Bill Shifts Resources to the Rich”

by Marty Wolfson, Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Notre Dame
November 24, 2017

Rep. Jackie Walorski wants us to believe that the GOP tax bill, recently passed by the House of Representatives, is a good deal for working people and middle-class families.  In a recent op-ed in the South Bend Tribune, she claims that the tax bill fixes the current tax code, which “favors special interests, not hardworking Hoosiers like you.” 

In reality, the tax bill is an outrageous transfer of money to the wealthy and to large corporations. Walorski tries to have us believe that the tax bill really helps ordinary families by selectively citing aspects of the bill and ignoring parts of the bill that contradict her claims. 

Standard Deduction.  She says that the bill doubles the standard deduction, but omits the fact that the bill also eliminates the personal exemption.  (Both of these reduce the amount of income that is taxable.)  Under the GOP tax bill, single individuals or childless couples would see a small benefit.  But because the personal exemption applies to children as well as adults, families with two children, for example, would pay somewhat more taxes.  And the more children they had, the more taxes they would have to pay, compared to the current law. 

Tax Rates.  Walorski also says that the bill “lowers rates for low- and middle-income Americans to 12 percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent.”  Actually, the bill raises rates for the lowest income Americans; the current lowest tax rate is 10 percent, not 12 percent. 

Child Tax Credit.  Walorski says the bill “expands the child tax credit to $1,600 per child, [and] provides an additional $300-per-parent credit.”  However, many lower-income families do not have enough income to take full or even partial advantage of the higher child tax credit, even as the credit’s coverage is expanded to higher-income families, and the $300-perparent credit expires in 2022.  

Education Benefits.  She continues by saying that the tax bill “helps you save and invest for the future by streamlining higher education benefits.”  If by streamlining she means cutting benefits, she is correct.  The bill eliminates the deduction for student loan interest in 2018.  It also increases the tax burden on graduate students who teach or do research by requiring them to pay taxes on tuition waivers they receive.  Teachers at K-12 schools would lose the $250 deduction for educator expenses; these expenses represent the pencils, paper, and other supplies that many teachers provide for their students out of their own pockets.  These policies undermine the idea that we as a society value education.

Loopholes.  Walorski asserts that the tax bill “makes taxes simpler and fairer by eliminating carveouts and loopholes that benefit the wealthy and well-connected.”  However, she does not mention that the tax bill maintains the notorious “carried interest” provision, whereby Wall Street managers pay lower tax rates on their income than do ordinary taxpayers. She does not mention that the bill eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax, which prevents wealthy taxpayers from avoiding taxes altogether.  In a rare tax return of Donald Trump’s that was made public, we learned that much of the taxes that he did pay in 1995 were due to the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Itemized Deductions.  Walorski says, “Taxpayers will also have the option of itemizing their taxes and deducting things like charitable contributions, home mortgage interest, and state and local property taxes up to $10,000.”  Of course, taxpayers already have the option of listing itemized deductions (which can be used in place of the standard deduction and serve to reduce taxable income), but under the House tax bill what they can deduct is severely restricted.  The deduction for mortgage interest is reduced and limits are now applied to property tax deductions (the Senate bill eliminates them altogether).  Most other itemized deductions are eliminated, including medical expenses, state and local income taxes, theft or casualty losses, tax preparation expenses, and employee expenses.

Estate Tax.  Acknowledging the repeal of the estate tax, Walorski says that this will “protect family farms and small businesses.”  She fails to mention that the estate tax, a tax on inherited wealth, does not apply to individual estates of $5.49 million or smaller.  Only the very wealthy pay this tax.  The Tax Policy Center estimates that in 2017 only 80 small farms and businesses will pay this tax; the taxes these small farms and businesses pay constitute only about 1 percent of all taxable estate tax returns and fifteen hundredths of 1 percent of the total estate tax revenue.  Billionaires like Donald Trump are the primary beneficiaries of a repeal of the estate tax.

Taxes on pass-through businesses.  Walorski says that the tax bill “delivers the lowest rates for Main Street job creators in nearly 80 years, with a top rate of 25 percent on small businesses like manufacturers, mom-and-pop restaurants, and family farmers.”  She is referring here to a provision in the tax bill that lowers the rate on “pass-through” businesses to 25 percent.  Pass-through businesses pass their tax liabilities on to the owners of the businesses, who pay taxes at the individual rate.  They are not just small businesses; they can be Wall Street firms like private equity firms and hedge funds, large pipeline companies, and other large companies like real estate developers (such as Donald Trump).  These companies would benefit from a reduction in the pass-through rate to 25 percent, but nearly 90 percent of pass-through owners (the small businesses to which Walorski refers) already pay 25 percent or less because they do not earn enough income to pay higher rates.

Taxes on large corporations.  Walorski mentions the pass-through rate reduction, but she does not mention the enormous giveaway to large corporations, which would see a reduction in their tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent under the House bill.  Actually, corporations do not pay 35 percent now, due to loopholes in the tax law.  What they pay has been estimated at more like 18 percent.  The House reduced the tax rate but did not close the loopholes.  So corporations likely will wind up paying much less than 20 percent. Furthermore, the corporate tax cuts in the House bill are permanent, unlike the individual tax cuts, which expire by 2027 (partially in the House and totally in the Senate).  The Joint Committee on Taxation, a Congressional committee, said that the average tax rate for taxpayers with incomes under $75,000 would be higher by 2027.

Budget deficits.  The individual tax cuts are repealed by 2027 because, in order for Republicans to pass the bill in the Senate without Democratic votes, the tax bill has to limit the increase in budget deficits by 2027 to $1.5 trillion.  Republicans say, though, in 2027 they will make the individual tax cuts permanent.  But either ordinary Americans will pay more taxes or else the budget deficit will explode.

Medicare cuts.  Passage of tax legislation with increases in deficits of $1.5 trillion will immediately trigger the PAYGO (“pay-as-you-go”) budget rule, which calls for reductions in mandatory spending programs (like Medicare) to offset the budget deficits.  The spending reduction to Medicare is limited to 4 percent, and Congress could waive the PAYGO rule, but the threat of budget deficits has been used in the past by those who wish to reduce or eliminate government spending programs.

Trickle down.  Finally, Walorski asserts that “these reforms will lead to more jobs and higher wages.”  This is the familiar “trickle-down” theory:  give tax cuts to corporations that boost their profits and they will use those profits to increase investments in new plant and equipment.  The new investment will increase employment and boost productivity, and the greater productivity will enable corporations to increase workers’ wages.  The empirical evidence for this theory is nonexistent, and the evidence we do have disproves it.  For example, increases in productivity over the past 35 years have not resulted in an increase in wages and benefits, which have been largely stagnant.  More recently, at a meeting hosted by the Wall Street Journal, a Journal editor asked a roomful of CEOs how many would increase capital expenditures if the GOP’s tax plan to cut the corporate tax rate to 20 percent became law.  Only a few hands went up, leading Gary Cohn, President Trump’s chief economic advisor, to ask plaintively, “Why aren’t the other hands up?”  In summary, Jackie Walorski’s attempt to portray the House tax bill as a boon for lower- and middle-class taxpayers relies on misstatements and selective descriptions.  Most economic analysts have concluded that the GOP tax plan would primarily cut the taxes of corporations and the rich, and only marginally help ordinary Americans.  An analysis of the entire House tax bill makes this clear.

Marty Wolfson, Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, is also the former Director of the Higgins Labor Program. He is a cofounder and longtime leader of the Community Forum for Economic Justice.

“Can the Labor and Faith Communities Fix the Drug Pricing Crisis?”

by Fran Quigley, Clinical Professor of Law, Health and Human Rights Clinic, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law​
October 23, 2017

David Bridges struggles with several serious health conditions, but he gets up each morning and goes to work at his job at an Indianapolis manufacturing company. The job doesn’t pay much, but it does provide the 55-year-old Bridges with health insurance.

So why can’t David Bridges afford his medicines?

Bridges’ doctor has prescribed him a half-dozen different medicines. One of them alone costs him a whopping $700 a month, with no generic alternative. That is, the medicine would cost that much if he took the doses his doctor says he needs.  

But David Bridges doesn’t follow doctor’s orders. He can’t. Bridges’ health insurance has a $3,000 deductible, so he is responsible for the full cost of his medicines up to that point. He doesn’t have that kind of money, so he skips doses and just doesn’t fill some of the prescriptions.

Bridges took out a credit card to use when paying for the prescriptions he does fill. He is still paying off the credit card he used for last year’s medicines. Meanwhile, his poorly treated conditions are getting worse.  

“It seems I can’t even catch up, much less get ahead,” he says.

David Bridges is not alone.

The cost of prescription drugs in the U.S. rises at an average of 10% or more every year, and some go up much higher.  The price of insulin, for example, has risen a remarkable 1,123% since the late 1990’s.   

For many workers like David Bridges, having insurance does not protect them from these price spikes. High-deductible insurance plans are becoming the new normal, with the majority of workers in smaller companies facing big out-of-pocket costs before seeing any benefit from their plans.  The same is true for persons on Medicare, where the basic package does not cover prescription drugs, and where the Part D program includes a significant gap in coverage.

So it is not surprising that one of every five Americans reports skipping medicine doses each year due to cost. Those skipped doses can cause strokes, heart attacks, and even death.

Meanwhile, the corporations that own the rights to those medicines make up one of the most profitable industries in modern history. Some enjoy breathtaking profits as high as 42 percent annually, built on government-granted monopolies on government-developed medicines, sold at prices set at hundreds of times over manufacturing costs. The companies tout their research investments, but they actually spend far more on marketing, executive salaries, share buybacks, and lobbying.   

When highly profitable companies hold monopolies on life-saving products, they can force the desperately ill to pay any price the companies name. So it is not surprising that significant majorities of Americans are demanding drug pricing reform. Proposals to change the system are pending in dozens of states and in the U.S. Congress.

And the movement is getting a boost from working people. The hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE recently won a historic victory in Nevada requiring transparency in the price of insulin, and National Nurses United has taken a leadership role in drug pricing activism around the country.   

The labor community knows how impactful faith congregations have been in advancing the right to a decent wage and a safe workplace. Building on that legacy, we have launched a new campaign, People of Faith for Access to Medicines (PFAM), organizing faith groups around making access to essential medicines a moral imperative and a fully-realized human right. It is a natural fit: every religious belief and moral code is built on a foundation of caring for the sick and suffering.

Access to medicines is a moral imperative and human right. But, as the labor community knows, the only way to make medicines access a human right is to organize and advocate. So I invite friends and supporters of the Higgins Labor Program to join me in making plans to fix this broken system.

We at PFAM would love to talk with you, your congregation, or any group you can suggest to us.  For starters, you can check out our website.

People who are sick and suffering should be able to access the medicines they need. The fact that David Bridges and millions of others like him cannot do so is a moral failing. But we can fix this, and people of faith and the labor community can help lead the way.

Fran Quigley directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law. The founder and executive director of People of Faith for Access to Medicines, he is the author of several books, including Prescription for the People: An Activist’s Guide to Making Medicine Affordable for All (Cornell, NY: ILR Press, 2017).

“Working across the Border: Dispatches from Checkpoint 300, Jerusalem/Bethlehem”

by Julie, a current Notre Dame undergraduate student who prefers to reveal only her first name
October 4, 2017

There is a checkpoint that separates the city where Jesus was born and the city in which He died. They are close enough, though, that many people cross the checkpoint each day to get to their jobs.  

This summer, I lived in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, officially, is the undivided capital of Israel. I crossed Checkpoint 300 fairly often to go to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, pertaining to Palestine, hence the checkpoint between them. According to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, about 100,000 Palestinians make the opposite trek, heading north to work in Jerusalem each day.

Sure, It doesn’t seem so interesting: bordering cities, people traveling between them for work. But residents from Bethlehem are not allowed to enter into Jerusalem without a special permit, and only approximately 63,000 of these Palestinian workers have permits. The other 38,000 do not.

Unemployment in Bethlehem and Palestine is staggering. It’s worse for women and recent college graduates. People are looking for opportunities for meaningful and dignified work. There are more opportunities in Israel, but there are many barriers to Palestinians working in Israel. Some of these barriers are linguistic and cultural, and one of these barriers is a checkpoint.

We all know the humdrum shuffle of our daily commutes. Here’s what your story might look like if you were Bethlehem resident walking to his job in Jerusalem:

For the sake of this illustration, let’s say that you got your permit and everything checks out legally. Maybe you know a guy who got you a job building a new hotel in Jerusalem, and the construction company was able to hook you up. If you have a degree, maybe you’re teaching classes in Jerusalem. Either way, you’re lucky because not everyone who applies for a permit is accepted.

You walk up Manger Street past the Separation Wall, past the shouting taxi drivers, past the people selling fruit and sweets on the side of the road, and you enter the checkpoint. You walk uphill through a dark hallway with sloppy Arabic grafitti on the white paint on the walls, and then, you cross through a spinning metal barrier. It’s a little bit like the device that one would pass through after scanning his subway card except a lot more intimidating, with more metal arms. Then, enjoy a breath of fresh air outside. Cross the mostly empty parking lot to another building. There’s another dark hallway, but this one is downhill, and then there’s another metal barrier, which leads you to the florescent lighting of the main building.

You’ve reached the line for the metal detector. Depending on the time you go to work, you might be the only one there, or it might be absolutely swarming with people, all impatiently waiting for their turn to take off their belts and step through the metal detector. There are three metal detectors, each behind its own revolving metal barrier. Generally, only one is open and serviceable. Once, I saw two open, when the checkpoint was so crowded I could hardly squeeze myself into the building. In any case, you’ll have to guess which door leads to the open metal detector. At first, you might think that there is definitely some way that people know where they can pass, some visible sign on the barrier, but after crossing several times, you’ll realize that this is not the case. It’s most often the middle metal detector that’s open, but not always. Just about every morning, you’ll walk up to a line and find that it’s locked, or see someone who does so, looks disappointed, and goes off to check the next line.

There are only three to check though, and Checkpoint 300 is always open, except when it’s not, and when it’s not, you’ll just have to wait, usually only for a couple of minutes. Eventually, you’ll be able to get through, and you’ll throw your loose shekels and your watch into a bin and walk through the metal detector. Once you’ve retrieved your items, you’ll cross one more spinning barrier to get to the inspection points, where the guards actually sit.

The military personnel are maybe nineteen or twenty years old. If it’s a slow day, you’ll see a soldier texting or on social media, gun strapped around his or her chest. Because I have an American passport, I just pressed the photo page of my passport to the plexiglass and walked into Jerusalem. Sometimes, Palestinians go through almost as quickly; you’ll have to press your permit to the plexiglass and get your fingerprint taken electronically, but it doesn’t usually take very long. Sometimes, there’s a problem, and the guard will want to ask more questions, which will hold up both you and the all the people behind you in line. The other Palestinians will be mad and mutter about you, but no one will be rude or brave enough to say anything out loud.

When the soldiers nod you on, you’ve made it to Jerusalem. The bus stop is right there, so you can catch the bus or take a taxi to your place of work.

I’ve made it through the checkpoint in five minutes before, and I’ve personally waited as long as forty. I’ve heard stories of it taking two hours, and even read about it taking five hours. But at least for me, it’s not really the waiting that’s so bad, or even the fact that the checkpoint exists in the first place, but the fact that it’s never consistent. You can guess if there’s going to be a big crowd based on the time or the day of the week or particular holidays and religious observances, but you won’t know which metal detector will be open, or how many guards will be sitting at the inspection points, or how efficient they’ll be when checking permits, until you get there. The government subjects the movement of your body to its control, and you don’t get to say anything about it.

I’d like to reiterate that in this scenario, you were very fortunate because you had a job and a legal permit to cross.

In Bethlehem, I met gardeners with advanced degrees, and biology graduates working in telemarketing. There are just no jobs in Palestine, people say — everyone from community leaders to taxi drivers. Some organizations, like the Bethlehem Business Incubator and BuildPalestine, are trying to help alleviate this pressure through creative entrepreneurship. They show promise, but it is yet to be determined if these efforts will have a major impact on the Bethlehem labor market.

I met a young woman, a recent college graduate, who told me that she couldn’t get a permit to travel to Israel. In addition to not being able to work for a higher salary across the checkpoint, she was disappointed because many of her friends did receive permits.

I asked her, “Why do you think some people get permits and some people don’t?”

“You need a permit to travel. Some people travel without permits, but it can be dangerous.”

“Sure, but, I mean, when the Israeli government looks at the applications, how do they decide which of those people get to have a permit and which are refused?”

She looked at me. “I don’t know,” she said. “I really wish to know, but I don’t know.”