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Community Hearing on Transit Equity 2021: Findings and Recommendations

By Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty, Caitlin Kline and Gregor Semieniuk - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 2021

In February 2018, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) partnered with the Labor Network for Sustainability to launch Transit Equity Day in honor of Rosa Parks’ birthday, which is on February 4. We chose to honor Rosa Parks for the role she played in the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus and, in doing so, lift up transit as a workers’ rights, civil rights, and climate-justice issue.

Since its launch, Transit Equity Day has grown each year. In 2020, there were events in 50 cities and a social media explosion that brought attention to transit equity beyond just the participating locations. Just as important, a Transit Equity Network emerged through the process. Consisting largely of grassroots advocates, the network has grown and relationships have deepened both locally and nationally.

After the success of Transit Equity Day 2020, participants were ready to work together on a national initiative. We wanted to develop a stronger sense of unity and shared values. We sought to shape a broad vision of what we wanted from our transit systems across the nation. But rather than creating a vision document ourselves, the Transit Equity Network leaders wanted first to hear directly and collectively from transit stakeholders—riders, workers, families reliant on transit, and community activists—about their needs, frustrations, and hopes.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and, with it, a transit crisis. With ridership plummeting and state and local budgets imperiled, it became clear that transit was facing an existential threat. The pandemic laid bare the crisis of inequality and highlighted the essential need for transit. While thousands of workers in sectors not considered essential stopped using transit, millions of essential workers continued to need to get to their jobs: workers in healthcare, public service, food and agriculture and others continued to work to keep us safe and healthy. Many of these workers were in low-wage jobs and dependent on transit, but transit services were being cut and health and safety was not adequately addressed in many systems that remained in service. The dangers associated with the pandemic were exacerbated for unemployed and low-income riders who rely on transit to get to healthcare appointments, grocery stores, pharmacies, and other necessary retail establishments. The idea of holding a (virtual) community hearing on transit was born in this context. The crisis caused by the pandemic made it even more apparent that we needed to hear directly from transit riders and workers about how to address the crisis in the short-term and improve the system in the long-term. For Transit Equity Day 2021 we convened two days of live testimony–as well as pre-recorded testimony–over Zoom with hearing facilitators who came from the policy and social justice world, with Spanish interpretation and to the extent we were able, accommodations for the physically challenged.

This report is a summary of those hearings–rooted in the experience of workers and riders. We have tried to highlight recurring themes, distill the most salient points and remain faithful to the intent of the testimony. Transit riders and workers were very clear about the important role transit plays in their lives and in their community. At the same time, they identified problems with the current system and offered constructive solutions to address them. We structured each key theme of these findings in a similar fashion: 1) recognize the critical benefit of public transit to those who are most vulnerable; 2) identify the existing problems and inequities in public transit; 3) propose policy solutions to both fix and improve public transit. 

Read the text (PDF).

Fossil Fuel Companies Took Billions in U.S. Coronavirus Relief Funds but Still Cut Nearly 60,000 Jobs

By Nicholas Kusnetz - Inside Climate News, April 2, 2021

When Congress looked to prop up a tanking economy and stanch its hemorrhaging of employment as the pandemic spread last year, the oil industry was among those that sought relief. Now, a new analysis shows that dozens of fossil fuel companies received billions of dollars in tax benefits in the coronavirus relief package, but slashed tens of thousands of jobs anyway.

While Congress ended up sending billions in direct loans to small and large businesses, a significant portion of CARES Act benefits came in the form of changes to the tax code. At least 77 fossil fuel companies took advantage of those to claim a total of $8.2 billion in benefits last year, even as they cut nearly 60,000 jobs, according to an analysis published Friday by BailoutWatch, a nonprofit supported by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Chris Kuveke, a BailoutWatch analyst, said the data shows that the aid to the industry failed to deliver the benefits that Congress had intended.

“These companies did not use that money they received through the CARES Act to maintain payroll,” he said.

As oil prices collapsed last year, some energy companies began lobbying Congress and the federal government for various forms of relief. Occidental Petroleum, for example, enlisted its employees to send letters to members of Congress to ask that they “provide liquidity” to the energy industry, according to Bloomberg News.

Among the various forms of stimulus included in the final relief package were changes to the tax code that proved beneficial to the oil industry.

For example, companies for years were allowed to “carry back” their losses in one year to offset profits from previous years to get a retroactive tax refund. That allowance helped companies with volatile earnings, but it was eliminated by the 2017 tax cuts signed into law by President Donald Trump. The change was one of the few provisions of the tax overhaul that modestly increased the tax burden for corporations, even as the bill overall drastically reduced corporate taxes, said Thornton Matheson, a senior fellow at Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

The CARES Act eliminated that change, and even expanded on the original provision, allowing companies to carry any losses incurred from 2018-2020 back five years, instead of the two years allowed before the 2017 tax bill. Matheson said the oil and gas industry was among a few likely to benefit most from that part of the CARES Act, because its earnings can swing wildly with commodity prices.

Thus the change allowed companies to stretch losses from 2018 back to 2013, when oil prices were above $100 a barrel and profits for some of them were sky high (prices fell sharply in late 2014, and have not fully recovered).

Marathon Petroleum, a major refiner, benefited the most, the analysis found, claiming $2.1 billion in tax benefits, according to the BailoutWatch analysis. The company cut nearly 2,000 jobs last year, not counting those in its retail business.

Marathon disputed the figure, saying that less than 30 percent of its $2.1 billion tax benefit was due to the CARES Act provisions. However, its annual securities filing said that based on the carryback “as provided by the CARES Act, we recorded an income tax receivable of $2.1 billion” to reflect the company’s estimate of the refund it expected to receive in its 2020 tax return.

Marathon spokesman Jamal T. Kheiry said some of the layoffs were associated with the idling of refineries, and added that the company was generous with employees who lost their jobs. “To help affected employees transition, we provided severance, bonus payments, extended healthcare benefits at employee rates, job placement assistance, counseling and other provisions,” he said.

NOV, a drilling company, cut nearly 8,000 workers, more than 20 percent of its employees, despite receiving a $591 million tax benefit. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Occidental collected $195 million and cut 2,600 jobs.

Eric P. Moses, a spokesman for Occidental, said the job cuts were associated with its 2019 acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum “and completed prior to the COVID pandemic and Congress’ passage of the CARES Act.”

Our Time To Thrive: A Town Hall

To Save America, Help West Virginia

By Liza Featherstone - Jacobin, March 30, 2021

A Democratic swing vote in an evenly divided Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has already proved to be a significant obstacle to progressive policy. His opposition was a significant reason for Biden’s failure to raise the minimum wage to $15; Manchin also played a key role in shrinking the household stimulus checks, as well as the weekly unemployment checks. He will be a necessary and highly undependable vote as Democrats attempt to address the climate crisis, advance union organizing rights, and counter racist Republican efforts to legislate voter suppression.

However, the infrastructure bill that Biden and the Democrats are preparing to unveil, which is expected to call for $3 trillion in investment in public goods and services, presents an opportunity for West Virginians — and for all of us. Manchin has been championing this legislation, even calling for it to be funded with an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. On this issue, Eric Levitz of New York magazine has convincingly argued, Manchin is actually pulling Biden to the left.

Manchin’s salience puts West Virginia in a powerful position. The state has urgent needs, given the long decline of the coal industry and the double impact of the opioid and coronavirus public health crises. Almost a third of West Virginians filed for unemployment between mid-March 2020 and the end of January 2021.

A report by University of Massachusetts economists with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), released in late February, proposed a recovery plan for West Virginia, with good jobs and environmental sustainability at its center. The study showed how compatible these priorities really are. The state’s coal industry has spent years successfully demonizing Democrats and environmentalists as job killers. Under recent regimes of neoliberal austerity, there might been some truth to that, but with more generous investment from the federal government, West Virginia can redevelop its economy and lead the nation in fighting climate change at the same time.

PERI found that the struggling Appalachian state could reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050 — the targets the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined in 2018 were needed in order to avoid irreversible damage to our planet and to human civilizations — while creating jobs and promoting prosperity. The UMass researchers found that $3.6 billion per year in (both public and private) investments in a clean energy program — averaged over the 2021–2030 time period — would generate about 25,000 West Virginian jobs per year. The PERI researchers also analyzed the effect of $1.6 billion a year — also over 2021–2030 — in investments in public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration, and agriculture, finding that these efforts would generate about 16,000 jobs per year.

In fighting for such priorities, progressives need resist the pull of what we might call “woke neoliberalism.” Woke neoliberalism functions by using charges of racism and sexism — very real problems! — against initiatives that could help the entire working class. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”) In the debate over the Biden infrastructure bill, some well-meaning people are falling into that trap, already pitting investment in care work and infrastructure against each other.

The Washington Post reported on Monday, “Some people close to the White House say they feel that the emphasis on major physical infrastructure investments reflects a dated nostalgia for a kind of White working-class male worker,” citing SEIU president Mary Kay Henry’s private admonitions to the White House not to overlook the care economy. Henry said, “We’re up against a gender and racial bias that this work is not worth as much as the rubber, steel and auto work of the last century.” Economists Heidi Shierholz, Darrick Hamilton, and Larry Katz reportedly argued to the White House that investing in care work would create more jobs than investing in infrastructure.

Let’s not do this.

Reclaiming Abandoned Mines: Turning Coal Country’s Toxic Legacy Into Assets

By Tara Lohan - The Revelator, March 29, 2021

Mined lands reclaimed for biking trails, office parks — even a winery. Efforts like these are already underway in Appalachia to reclaim the region’s toxic history, restore blighted lands, and create economic opportunities in areas where decades-old mines haven’t been properly cleaned up.

The projects are sorely needed. And so are many more. But the money to fund and enable them remains elusive.

Mining production is falling, which is good news for tackling climate change and air pollution, but Appalachia and other coal states are also feeling the economic pain that comes with it. And that loss is more acute on top of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and the mounting bills from the industry’s environmental degradation.

Local leaders and organizations working in coal communities see a way to flip the script, though. The Revelator spoke with Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, about efforts focusing on one particular area that’s plagued coal communities for more than 50 years: cleaning up abandoned mine lands.

Shelton explains the history behind these lands, the big legislative opportunities developing in Washington, and what coal communities need to prepare for a low-carbon future.

Pipelines, Pandemics and Capital’s Death Cult: A Green Syndicalist View

By Jeff Shantz - LibCom, March 29, 2021

We can see this within any industry, within any capitalist enterprise. It is perhaps most clearly apparent, in an unadorned fashion, in extractives industries like mining, logging, or oil, where the consumption of nature (as resources) for profit leaves ecosystems ruined, where workers are forced to labor in dangerous, often deadly, conditions, and where it is all is carried out through direct dispossession, invasion, and occupation of Indigenous lands and through processes of mass killing, even genocide. And when it is all done, little remains except the traces of profit that have been extracted and taken elsewhere.

These intersections have come to the forefront with particular clarity under conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. The death cult of capital on full display in all its variety of ways.

The Future of People Power in the Coronavirus Depression

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 25, 2021

What can we learn from the role of people power in the Great Depression and in the first year of the Coronavirus Depression? Based on the seven preceding commentaries on the New Deal and the popular movements of 2020, this commentary maintains that popular direct action can play a significant role in shaping the Biden era. It examines the emerging political context and suggests guidelines for navigating the complex landscape that lies ahead. To read this commentary, please visit this page.

Why major unions are wary of the move to wind and solar jobs

By Ella Nilsen - Vox, March 19, 2021

President Joe Biden wants to quickly move the United States toward clean energy jobs in wind and solar. But unions — some of Biden’s strongest allies — are skeptical about the transition to green energy.

Biden and congressional Democrats are poised to introduce a large infrastructure plan that is supposed to deliver on two promises: putting job creation into overdrive, and decarbonizing the economy, with an aggressive goal of powering 100 percent of America’s electricity sector with clean energy by 2035.

To achieve both goals, the administration is betting on a massive push toward wind and solar. Renewables already produced 20 percent of US electricity in 2020, and expanding them further to decarbonize the economy necessarily means phasing out fossil fuels. But even as wind and solar production has increased, wages and the rate of unionized jobs in renewables haven’t kept up with the industries they’d be replacing. In order to make more profits, many companies want to keep their costs low — which includes keeping wages low.

“The fossil fuel industries were unionized in long struggles that were classic labor stories,” said University of Rhode Island labor historian Erik Loomis. “Now, they’re in decline and you have these new industries. But a green capitalist is still a capitalist, and they don’t want a union.”

About 4 percent of solar industry workers and 6 percent of wind workers are unionized, according to the 2020 US Energy and Employment Report. The percentage of unionized workers in natural gas, nuclear, and coal power plants is about double that, around 10 to 12 percent unionized (although still not a huge amount). In transportation, distribution, and storage jobs — which exist largely in the fossil fuel sector — about 17 percent of the jobs are unionized. Still, the solar and wind unionization rates are in line with the low national rate of unionized workers in the private sector, which is about 6.3 percent.

This is one of the big reasons there’s a real hesitancy on the part of many unions and workers to transition from fossil fuel to renewable jobs: They are worried the jobs waiting for them in wind and solar won’t pay as well or have union protections. This has long been a tension point between environmental groups and labor, often exploited by the right wing. Even though alliances between the two are forming, those underlying tensions won’t vanish easily.

Workers and Communities in Transition: Report of the Just Transition Listening Project

By J. Mijin Cha, Vivian Price, Dimitris Stevis, and Todd E. Vachon, et. al. - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 17, 2021

The idea of “just transition” has recently become more mainstream in climate discourse. More environmental and climate justice advocates are recognizing the need to protect fossil-fuel workers and communities as we transition away from fossil-fuel use. Yet, as detailed in our report, transition is hardly new or limited to the energy industry. Throughout the decades, workers and communities have experienced near constant economic transitions as industries have risen and declined. And, more often than not, transition has meant loss of jobs, identities, and communities with little to no support.

While transition has been constant, the scale of the transition away from fossil fuels will be on a level not yet experienced. Fossil fuels are deeply embedded in our economy and society. Transition will not only affect the energy sector, but transportation (including passenger and freight), agriculture and others. Adding to the challenges of the energy transition, we are also transitioning to a post-COVID-19-pandemic world. As such, we cannot afford, economically or societally, to repeat the mistakes of the past that left so many workers and communities behind.

To better understand how transition impacts people, what lessons can be learned, and what practices and policies must be in place for a just transition, in the Spring of 2020 we launched the Just Transition Listening Project (JTLP). The JTLP has captured the voices of workers and community members who have experienced, are currently experiencing, or anticipate experiencing some form of economic transition.

Those who have suffered from transitions are rarely the ones whose voices are heard. Yet, no one is more able to fully understand what workers and communities need than those who have lived that experience. The JTLP is the first major effort to center these voices. In turn, the recommendations provided can make communities and workers whole. In many ways, these recommendations are common sense and fundamental to creating a just society, regardless of transition. Yet, the failure of elected officials to deliver just transition policies points to the need for wide scale movement building and organizing.

This report summarizes lessons learned and policy recommendations in three overall concepts for decision-makers: Go Big, Go Wide, and Go Far.

Read the text (PDF).

The Great Depression and the Coronavirus Depression

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