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“Obama’s Executive Order Rights A Wrong”: One Of The Most Important Positive Steps For Civil Rights In Last 20 Years

Little noticed in coverage of President Barack Obama’s signing of the Fair Play and Safe Workplaces executive order July 31 was a provision that has been called “one of the most important positive steps for civil rights in the last 20 years.”

The statement comes from Paul Bland of the public interest group Public Justice, quoted by Emily Bazelon of Slate. He’s right; what he’s referring to is a provision of the order that bars employers from forcing workers to bring workplace discrimination, sexual assault or sexual harassment cases only through arbitration. As Bazelon reports, the order applies to firms with federal contracts valued at more than $1 million. But that’s plenty.

The arbitration provision got little public attention after the signing, in part because business lobbyists were so busy carrying on about other aspects of the executive order.

As my colleague Christi Parsons reported, businesses are exercised about a rule requiring prospective federal contractors to disclose labor law violations dating back three years and government agencies to take those violations into account when handing out federal contracts. The idea is to goad employers into settling the violations before they apply for contracts.

Business mouthpieces complain that the provision will create a “blacklist” barring companies with even minor violations from hopping on the government gravy train. Repeat after me: “Tough.”

The arbitration provision, however, addresses what may be an even more important abuse. As a private venue for dispute resolution, arbitration may be an effective way to keep commercial disagreement from clogging court dockets. That’s true chiefly when all the parties come to arbitration with roughly equivalent resources.

When it’s used by employers against employees, or by corporations against aggrieved customers, and when it’s forced down complainants’ throats against their wishes, however, it’s a scourge.

Arbitration provisions have proliferated everywhere, and it’s a safe bet that many, if not most, people forced into arbitration didn’t even know they were subject to the requirement until after their dispute arose – arbitration clauses are buried in the boilerplate you sign when you enroll with a cable company, go to a doctor or hospital, or take a new job. Arbitration typically favors the bigger party — they know their way around the process better, and they can take better advantage of what are often very loose standards of evidence and testimony in arbitration.

The Obama order strikes at the heart of this injustice by allowing complaints about workplace discrimination or abuse to be arbitrated only with the consent of the parties after the disputes arise. Surprise arbitration clauses, in other words, are out.

It’s hard not to see the order as a reproach to the Supreme Court and other courts. Judges are big fans of arbitration, in part because it keeps tedious commercial disputes out of their hair. The key case upholding arbitration clauses involved AT&T and a customer dispute over the real cost of “free” cellphones sold by the mobile carrier.

A California federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected AT&T’s demand to compel arbitration. But the Supreme Court sided with the company in a 5-4 ruling (naturally).

This was a reflection of what legal scholar David Cole recently called the court’s “unremittingly conservative” narrowing of access to the judiciary to remedy legal wrongs. The Earl Warren Court, he observed in the New York Review of Books, “viewed the courts’ highest calling in a constitutional democracy as safeguarding those who cannot protect themselves through the political process.”

The Roberts Court has put its thumb on the other side of the scale.

The Obama order shifts the balance just a little bit back the other way.

 

By: Michael Hiltzik, Columnist for The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, August 14, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 20, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Executive Orders | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sad But True”: The Only Way To Save The Open Internet Requires Sucking Up To Corporate Titans

The Internet as we know it will permanently change if new rules proposed this week by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allow Comcast or AT&T to create a “fast lane” on the Web for companies that pay a fee. Content providers who buy off telecoms for faster speeds would simply outmuscle their counterparts, stifling innovation from startups that can’t afford to compete. If my local McDonald’s opened a special lane to their register that was closed to all competing traffic, while reaching the Burger King down the street required hacking through a mile of jungle, I’ll probably just get a Big Mac instead of a Whopper.

The FCC had to act, because of an appellate court ruling in January blocking their previous open Internet rules. But net neutrality advocates wanted the agency to reclassify broadband Internet as a common carrier service, as they do with telephones, preventing discrimination on whatever passes through the pipe. Instead, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, opted for an alternative that will enrich Internet service providers (ISPs) and lead to a permanent digital divide. Wheeler’s justification, that no content would face discrimination, but telecoms can charge for faster service, has been roundly criticized, and with good reason. But will anyone be able to mobilize against the powerful interests pushing through the proposed rules?

There’s a recent precedent for Internet-based mobilization actually bringing down a corporate giveaway that initially looked inevitable. In 2011, Congress appeared close to sneaking through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) just before the Christmas holidays. The bill would have empowered the government to compel ISPs to shut down websites based on subjective audio or video copyright claims. It was a giant wet kiss to the movie and music industries, a bill that would have effectively eliminated user-generated content on the Web (could Facebook be expected to police their entire site minute-by-minute for copyright infringement?) and allowed media conglomerates to take over. You won’t be surprised that the staffers in House Judiciary Committee chair Lamar Smith’s office who wrote the bill left right afterward to become entertainment industry lobbyists.

But the Internet, in a coordinated pushback, beat SOPA, amid virtual silence from broadcast media, whose parent companies supported the bill. Web users of all political stripes bombarded Congress. At one point, Tumblr announced they were generating 3.6 calls per second. On January 18, 2012, hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia, participated in the largest Internet strike in history, redacting their content and posting links to help people register constituent complaints. Lawmakers walked away from the bill in droves; in the end, it never even got a vote.

The net neutrality fight shares some common elements with the SOPA battle. The universe of people affected—everyone who uses the Internet—is sufficiently big to enable a mass coalition. Demand Progress, a group active in the SOPA fight, has already begun to mobilize in conjunction with RootsAction, gathering 26,000 signatures on a petition in a matter of hours.

But the SOPA fight was truly trans-partisan, as conservatives made common cause with progressives against censorship of their websites. That potential doesn’t exist on net neutrality, as Republicans have rejected what they consider government regulation of the Internet. So the fight already begins with a narrower base. In addition, it’s easier to target individual members of Congress over proposed legislation, than rules from independent regulatory agencies (although, considering that the Obama Administration reaffirmed their commitment to net neutrality just two months ago, activists can try to hold them accountable).

Most important, net neutrality advocates likely need buy-in from corporate America. In a recent political science study, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern found that economic elites and organized business interests can have significant impact over public policy, while ordinary citizens just don’t. When the government acts in the interest of citizens at all, it’s often an accidental by-product of public preferences coincidentally matching those of business groups.

Many took this study to mean that the United States now functionally operates as an oligarchy rather than a democracy. It may actually mean that in America, citizens are typically disorganized on most public policy questions, particularly in an age of labor union decline, but can reverse that through mass organizing. Whatever your perspective, the SOPA fight offers a perfect case study. That effort really took off when Google, Reddit, and other major websites decided to join the fight, counterbalancing pressure on the other side from Hollywood. Tech giants knew that their businesses would be damaged by onerous copyright restrictions. The public interest and the interests of at least one set of elites aligned.

It’s not yet clear whether the same coalition will materialize to fight the FCC. The larger incumbent content providers, like Yahoo and Google, may well like paying for a faster Internet pipe, because it narrows competition to those who are already established. Netflix has already started paying for priority speeds, in a deal with Comcast for better back-end transit. In addition, Google is both a content producer and, through Google Fiber, an Internet service provider, and can reap profits by charging tolls for their fast lane. The company has been veering away from net neutrality for quite some time. Notably, the Internet Association, a coalition featuring Google, eBay, Netflix and other tech bigwigs, has said nothing about the FCC’s proposed rules yet, despite nominally supporting net neutrality. Google did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

This transformation by Google and others is common. As formerly upstart companies mature, they suddenly grow comfortable with regulations that favor incumbency—as long as they’re the incumbents. For a movement-based response to the FCC to succeed, activists must peel off companies willing to stay true to their word, and essentially rebuild a new corporate coalition that can engage their user base.

Netflix seems like an obvious choice. Despite their previous dealings, the streaming video giant has lashed out against Comcast for “arbitrary interconnection tolls,” and publicly opposed the merger between Comcast and Time Warner. Surely Netflix executives understand that a telecom industry freed to charge for faster broadband speeds will be able to raise prices over the years, and gouge incumbents. Netflix can go along with the arms race, or help to end it before it begins. Their leadership will attract smaller Internet players that can take more risks, because a pay-to-play Internet really does threaten their survival.

In this case, you can easily recognize the seeds of mass mobilization, which may provide enough political cover for a Netflix or Twitter to act. Tech communities with big audiences have responded to the FCC announcement with outrage. People intuitively know and resist the concentration of power controlling the tools they use every day. Several Democrats have criticized the proposal, from Cory Booker to Bernie Sanders to Nancy Pelosi, who actually urged people to contact the FCC with their criticisms. The ferocity of the backlash may have rocked the FCC back on their heels a bit, but time is short, with a May 15 meeting to move forward on the proposal looming.

But the sad fact of modern political life is that democratic action requires more than mere expressions of dissent, or the expectation that politicians who share our tribal sympathies will work on our behalf. To reach the critical mass necessary to succeed, savvy political organizing in the 21st century now includes convincing the business sector to recognize their interests and when they’re imperiled.

 

By: David Dayen, The New Republic, April 24, 2014

April 26, 2014 Posted by | Cable Companies, Corporations, Net Neutrality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Most Striking Is What’s Not There”: George W. Bush’s Multi-Million Dollar Can Of Whitewash

Big doings in Big D — the George W. Bush Presidential Library is open for business!

What a piece of work it is: a $250 million, 226,000-square-foot edifice on 23 acres in Dallas. His brick-and-limestone structure is certainly imposing, but once inside, you quickly see that it’s a $250 million can of whitewash. Of course, all ex-presidents want libraries that show their good side, and Bush himself was organizer-in-chief of this temple to … well, to himself. What’s most striking is not what’s in it, but what’s not.

For example, where’s that “Mission Accomplished” banner that he used as a political prop in May 2003, when he strutted out so fatuously on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln wearing a flight suit to pretend like he had won the Iraq War? And how about a video loop of him finally showing up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, cluelessly praising his infamously incompetent emergency management honcho with the now notorious shoutout: “Heck of a job, Brownie.”

Also, while there are 35 featured videos, a replica of W’s oval office, narrated presentations by top Bush officials and even statues of the family dogs — where’s Cheney? Shouldn’t there be an animated exhibit of the perpetually snarling veep in his dark chamber, scheming to shred our Constitution and set up an imperial presidency (or, more accurately, an imperial vice presidency)?

Another essential element of George’s tenure that goes unportrayed could be called “The Dead Garden of Compassionate Conservatism.” It could feature such mementos as him cutting health care funding for veterans, closing of the college gates for 1.5 million low-income students and turning a blind eye as eight million more Americans tumbled down the economic ladder into poverty on his watch.

Then there’s a shady exhibit that deserves more exposure. It’s the list of 160 donors of over a million dollars to the center, with each name chiseled into bricks that form what should be called “The Brick Wall of Special Interest Government.” Among those chiseled in are AT&T, casino baron Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News empire, several billionaire funders of right-wing politics, the founder of GoDaddy.com, and even the royal rulers of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

The 160 names are by no means all of the corporate and fat-cat donors — many more gave, but shyly requested that their involvement be kept from the public. Present law allows such unlimited, secret donations, even while a president is in office, still wielding the power to do favors for donors. Bill Clinton used this undercover loophole, and George W. happily chose the same dark path.

Today (May 1), the doors to Bush’s pharaonic “Presidential Center” opens to the public, allowing us commoners to dig deep into the shallowness of his achievements. The enormous building itself sets the tone: sharp edges, high brick walls and the welcoming feel of a fortress. Yet the ex-prez insists that it’s a place for public contemplation of his legacy, “a place to lay out facts,” he says.

How ironic is that? After all, the Bush-Cheney regime was infamous for its disregard of facts, as well as its hiding, twisting and manufacturing of facts to fool people. From going to war over Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to its plan to gut and privatize Social Security — facts were whatever Bush, Cheney, Rummy, Rove and Condi imperiously declared them to be.

More ironic is the centerpiece of the library’s attempt to whitewash George’s eight awful years: an interactive exhibit called “Decision Points Theater.” And theater it is, portraying George heroically as “The Decider.” Visitors to this rigged exhibit can use touchscreens to see Bush in virtual action, pondering as he receives contradictory advice on whether to save the poor people of New Orleans, bail out Wall Street bankers, rush into Iraq, etc.

The whole show is meant to make you feel sympathy for him, then you’re asked to “vote” on whether he did the right thing. Again, irony: We the People got no vote on these issues back when it would’ve mattered.

There are many, many Bush quotes in this pantheon, but the one that best characterizes him and should be engraved above the entrance to his sparkling new center is this, from August 2002: “I’m the commander. See, I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, May 2, 2013

May 4, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Supreme Court’s Continuing Defense Of The Powerful

The United States Supreme Court now sees its central task as comforting the already comfortable and afflicting those already afflicted.

If you are a large corporation or a political candidate backed by lots of private money, be assured that the court’s conservative majority will be there for you, solicitous of your needs and ready to swat away those pesky little people who dare to contest your power.

This court has created rules that will have the effect of declaring some corporations too big to be challenged through class actions, as

AT&T customers and female employees at Wal-Mart discovered.

And remember how sympathetic conservatives are supposed to be to the states as “laboratories of democracy,” pioneering solutions to hard problems?

Tell that to the people of Arizona.

They used a referendum to establish a highly practical system of financing political campaigns that the court, in a 5-4 decision Monday, eviscerated. It was designed to reduce corruption and give a fighting chance to candidates who decide to forgo contributions from special interests.

The people acted, noted Justice Elena Kagan in a brilliantly scalding dissent, after a scandal in which “nearly 10 percent of the state’s legislators were caught accepting campaign contributions or bribes in exchange for supporting a piece of legislation.”

Under Arizona’s “clean elections” initiative, candidates who raised a modest amount in very small contributions could receive a lump sum of public money. They could raise no further private funds.

No candidate had to join the public system. But if a privately financed candidate or the interest groups supporting his or her campaign started outspending one who was publicly financed, the public system came to the rescue with additional cash so the “clean money” candidate wouldn’t be blown out of the race by lethal dollar bills.

Why was this important? Kagan was spot on: “Candidates will choose to sign up” for public funding “only if the subsidy provided enables them to run competitive races.” Such breathtaking common sense has been missing from the majority’s recent campaign finance decisions — notably its Citizens United ruling, also a 5-4 conservative ukase, allowing our poor, beleaguered corporations to expand their power in American politics.

Here’s the stunning part: For years, opponents of campaign finance reform have accused those who want to repair the system of trying to reduce the amount of political speech. But Arizona’s law, as Kagan pointed out, “subsidizes and so produces more political speech.” And then there was this shot at Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion: “Except in a world gone topsy-turvy, additional campaign speech and electoral competition is not a First Amendment injury.”

Indeed, Roberts had to argue that those terribly downtrodden candidates financed with private money had their speech “burdened,” simply because their publicly financed opponents had the means to respond.

Kagan and the dissenters stood up for free speech. Roberts’ majority defended paid speech. The dissenters want to allow candidates to talk; the majority wants to enhance money’s ability to talk.

Roberts was especially exercised over any notion of “leveling the playing field” between private-money candidates and their challengers. He even included a footnote calling attention to the Citizens Clean Elections Commission’s Web site, which once said the law was passed “to level the playing field when it comes to running for office.” Horrors!

Kagan archly noted the “majority’s distaste for ‘leveling’ ” and then dismissed its obsession, observing that Roberts failed to take seriously the Arizona law’s central purpose of containing corruption. Leveling was the means, not the end.

Nonetheless, pay heed to how this conservative court majority bristles at nearly every effort to give the less wealthy and less powerful an opportunity to prevail, whether at the ballot box or in the courtroom. Not since the Gilded Age has a Supreme Court been so determined to strengthen the hand of corporations and the wealthy. Thus the importance of the Wal-Mart and AT&T cases, the latter described by the New York Times as “a devastating blow to consumer rights.” Will the court now feel so full of its power that it takes on the executive and legislative branches over the health-care law?

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt warned that the courts had “grown to occupy a position unknown in any other country, a position of superiority over both the legislature and the executive.” Worse, “privilege has entrenched itself in many courts just as it formerly entrenched itself in many legislative bodies and in many executive offices.”

What happens to a democracy when its highest court dedicates itself to defending privilege? That’s the unfortunate experiment on which we are now embarked.

By: E. J. Dionne, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, Published June 29, 2011

July 4, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Constitution, Corporations, Democracy, GOP, Government, Ideologues, Ideology, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, SCOTUS, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Republican Supreme Court Sticks It To The Little Guy (Again)

Once again the United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has shown the nation it will always favor corporations over people even if it means conjuring new law out of thin air.  Like Citizens United, the recent 5-4 ruling in AT&T’s favor gutting the power of consumers to file class-action lawsuits against giant corporations tips the scales of justice against the people and renders the enormous power of corporations even more enormous.

When I first heard about the case, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion there was little doubt in my mind that the Gang of Five — John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas would figure out a way to ignore Supreme Court precedent and again apply their judicial activism in service to the corporations, and by extension, to the oligarchy they apparently believe the “founders” intended.

It’s kind of funny when we see Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romeny, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich pandering to the “little guy” denouncing “elites” who are trampling on their rights only to remain mute on the fact that their beloved Republican Supreme Court never, ever rules in favor of the “little guy.”

The Republican president Ronald Reagan gave us Scalia and Kennedy; the Republican president George Herbert Walker Bush gave us Thomas; and the Republican president George W. Bush gave us Roberts and Alito.  This cabal has shown over and over again where its true loyalties lie, not to “the law,” not to “the Constitution,” not to “calling balls and strikes,” but to a 21st century version of corporate feudalism.  This new corporate feudalism that the High Court is determined to thrust on the nation is even more exploitative than the earlier brand of Medieval feudalism because it is absent noblesse oblige.

The serfs toiling on the corporate plantation can only continue to pay Chase and Bank of America for their underwater mortgages, ExxonMobil and Chevron for their $4 a gallon gas, and AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile and the rest for the privilege of communicating in a modern society.  And if the serfs seek redress the High Court will slap them down before they can get anything substantial off the ground.  With Citizens United placing a stranglehold of corporate power over our state, local, and federal system of elections, we cannot turn to our political “leaders” for redress, we can’t turn to the courts, and we certainly can’t turn to trying to morally persuade sociopathic non-human entities called corporations — so where does that leave us?

In the current context of unrestrained corporate dominance it’s unconscionable that the Obama administration has not done more to blunt its disastrous effects.  The Justice and Treasury Departments, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, etc. could be doing a hell of a lot more in bringing balance to the equation of corporations versus people.  The administration’s lagging performance in holding Wall Street accountable is well known, but it won’t even lift a finger to block grotesque mergers like the one between Comcast and NBC Universal, and AT&T and T Mobile.  In all these mergers and acquisitions it’s always the consumers and the employees who lose, while the CEOs and a select few of shareholders and financiers make out like the bandits they are.

Nothing illustrates the corruption rampant in Washington more than the recent resignation of Federal Communications Commission member, Meredith Attwell Baker, a Republican who Obama appointed to show how “bipartisan” he can be, who is now going to work as a lavishly paid shill for the very industry she was supposedly “regulating.”  Ms. Baker will now make the big bucks serving Comcast/NBC Universal after she voted for the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.  Sweet.   And few in the Beltway see anything unsavory about it.

Our political leaders, our Supreme Court, our captains of industry and finance, are so out of touch it’s going to be a long, long time before ordinary working people see any relief.  All of our institutions, political, economic, even religious, social, and cultural, all of them, are failing the people miserably in pursuit of the Almighty Buck.  The cunning game of appointing young ideologues to the bench has paid off handsomely for the corporate power structure.  Someone should tell those people running around in tri-cornered hats and talking about the “founders” that it might be wise to save an ounce of their collective wrath for the Republicans who have appointed five Justices who are trampling on individual freedoms in service of corporations.

By: Joseph A. Palermo, The Huffington Post, May 15, 2011

May 15, 2011 Posted by | Big Business, Businesses, Congress, Consumers, Corporations, Elections, Justice Department, Lawmakers, Politics, Regulations, Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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